Tea Time with Alexis Hall

TeaTime with AJH

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

Alexis HallAlexis Hall reads things and writes things and is bored of his own bio.

Website: quicunquevult.com
Twitter: @quicunquevult

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15 thoughts on “Tea Time with Alexis Hall

  1. I think one aspect of this problem, within m/m specifically, is the amount of misogyny that has been within the genre. And I am talking about women’s internalised misogyny here, not about gay men vs women, for clarity. ‘Girl cooties’, Evil Woman tropes, and all the rest of it. That has changed a lot already, I think, with the genre developing quickly, but it has been a powerful force. And of course the dislike of the “effeminate” man is a feature of misogyny. Basically, if you don’t like women you don’t like men who do things culturally stamped as womanish, such as crying, liking flowers or talking about feelings.

    My gut feeling is that as queer romance grows and becomes more self aware as a genre, we’re going to see a lot more variety in the characters portrayed and what’s available for readers. Inarticulate macho alphas for them as wants it, of course, *as well as* wildly effete poets, flower shop owners and gentle genderqueer sky pilots.

    • I agree with your gut, KJ.

      I also agree with what, to me, has sometimes felt like self-loathing by way of the ultra-alphas, and inaccurate/unkind/downright mean portrayal of “effeminate” men. Not saying that anyone who writes or reads alphas is engaging in self-loathing – I read my alphas, I don’t hate meself LOL – but it’s made me feel like sometimes the characters are used to express that s-l, therefore perpetuating the whole darn circle around and around.

    • Yes, I agree too. Within the women’s movement there’s been such a celebration of women being free to do these things once reserved for men, but it’s all about having this kind of power identified with men, this very patriarchal kind of power, like being a CEO, or doing things that seem physically powerful & uber “manly”, being a construction worker or soldier or cop. Which, it’s good for women to be able to do these things, but not good if they are looked down upon for not wanting to do them. And it hasn’t changed the denigration of roles & behaviors seen as “feminine” such as cooking, sewing, mothering, floral arranging, showing feelings, being vulnerable, etc. It’s as if, to be successful, or viewed as successful, a woman had to sort of *become* a man herself, taking on the role of rejecting “feminine” things, in herself, other women, & men.

      So, it’s like, as the woman in the synopsis with my link said, women can be the patriarchy too, it’s not just men. But that’s not any real solution. For that you need embrace both “the feminine” & “the masculine”, in both men & women.

  2. Yes, all of this, so much. You have hit on something I’ve been thinking about lately.

    I keep finding this attitude in book reviews & it’s seriously pissing me off. People dissing a male character because he is perceived as . . . wimpy, I guess, in some way. Basically for having emotions. Or, otherwise acting in ways not consistent stereotypical concepts of masculinity that you’re talking about here.

    And, often it’s not stated that said “wimpiness” is a bad thing because the character is male, but while there’s no way to prove this is the case, sometimes I wonder, would the reaction be the same if the character were female? Though, even if it was, I’d still find it problematic that anyone is equating having or showing emotions with wimpiness, for any characters, male, female or non-binary.

    This really isn’t about reviews. Like you, I think it’s perfectly fine if readers or just people in general prefer men or characters to be a certain way, or books about those kinds of men, or the writers who write those kinds of books or characters. And it’s fine for reviewers to express whatever thoughts they have & to review how they want to review.

    What bothers me is that I sometimes see behind those opinions what feels like a value judgment about real human beings & not just an expression of reading preferences. It really troubles me. You know, as in, not just, “I didn’t like this character because he was too wimpy”, but as in, “men who act like this are wimps”.

    So, again, the issue isn’t reviews, per se, but the thinking behind them. Frankly, I just . . . really don’t feel it’s okay to even have those opinions. I know that might sound borderline to thought policing, & I certainly am not advocating we round up the people who think this way & arrest them or something! Or stop them from expressing their opinions in reviews or anywhere else.

    But that still doesn’t make it okay. There are actual things it is bad to think or believe. Racism, sexism & homophobia come to mind, to name but a few. I guess I’d have to say I find the sort of thinking we’re talking about here falls under sexism, in my view.

    It just bothers the hell out of me & I can’t help but take it personally. The 4 men dearest to my heart in this life, living & dead, & a number of others I like & greatly respect, are men who have shown or told me or in other ways been open about their feelings. And not one of them is or was a wimp.

    The thing you said about Men’s Right’s Activists & not being allowed to feel sadness, that feels really right to me, & strikes some kind of chord, I think I remember hearing a piece on public radio about a year ago that might be relevant. Not about Men’s Rights, just vaguely related in some way. If I can find it & it is I will come back later & post the link.

    • There’s a very good thing on Tumblr that basically outlines how all the things MRAs hate and feel unjust arise from the very misogyny and patriarchy they defend. Might that be it?

      • No, it actually was not about MRA’s at all. I found it, it’s about vulnerability & shame & how men & women, based on cultural expectations, experience it differently & for different reasons. It’s an audio recording. I’m about to post it above, with a little more explanation what it is.

    • OK, wow, found it. Here’s the link:

      http://www.onbeing.org/program/brene-brown-on-vulnerability/4928

      You have to listen to this, Alexis. It’s called The Courage to be Vulnerable. They quote Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah & play a bit of it at the end. And at about mid-point the interviewee, Brene Brown, a research professor in social work, tells about this thing that happened. This was the, bell that rang when I read what you said about the Men’s Rights thing. Not at all about MRA, but about men not being allowed to be vulnerable.

      Quick synopsis: She was doing a study on shame, but was only studying women at the time. After she gave a lecture, a man approached to ask why she didn’t mention men. When she told him she didn’t study men, he said: “Well that’s convenient. Because we have shame. We have deep shame. But when we reach out and tell our stories, we get the emotional shit beat out of us. And before you say anything about those mean fathers, and those coaches, and those brothers and those bully friends? My wife and three daughters, the ones who you just signed the books for? They had rather see me die on top of my white horse have to watch me fall off.” And then he walked away. And then the researcher said she had this epiphany & realized she needed to change her research, that she was part of the problem, or as she put it “I am the patriarchy.”

      The part before that is really good too, about the power of allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. I haven’t listened again to the rest, I think it’s about children.

      But the part about this man just struck me as so powerful & so heartbreaking, I’ve never forgotten it. And I think a long time ago I thought you should listen to this, but I forgot about it until now.

  3. “But sometimes it feels like m/m sort of missed the memo.” <<<< thissssssss. For some of the reasons you stated, that cultural pressure that has receded, somewhat, seems still strong in the genre. What's wild is that so many of the books that I and fellow reader friends have bananas reactions towards are the ones that veer from this "norm". Maybe we're reacting to it so strongly because we recognize the truth, instead of the widely perceived but ultimately incorrect cultural "norm" of men being all about the physical.

    "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." <<<< this is it, right here. It's not that men don't have feelings, it's that they're still culturally instructed, even if in some less obvious ways these days, to not express them. Like you, I'm going on what I experience in my own life, but the men not having feelings, or the "same" feelings as women, is a bunch of HOOEY. Untrue. Tell that to the convo I had with my bro on Thanksgiving evening last year, undoubtedly the toughest day I survived, being the first since my mom passed. Or another convo I had with my bro about his daughter, my niece, and family as a whole: there were tears.

    so. yeah. I'm gittin' itchy from the cultural constraints and how they seem to still have a strong presence in this genre. Itchy. And twitchy.

    I love the smut, but gimme books like Brandon Witt's "Then the Stars Fall", your "Shackles", Con Riley's "After Ben", and on and on and on.

    Another fab TT, AJH! 😀

  4. This is a great post AJ and presents this issue in your usual erudite and rational manner. I believe, as you describe that the m/m genre, as a young literary form, is behind in the rejection of weak stereotypes that marred het. romance for decades, and still does, though less so.

    One of the issues that hasn’t been raised I think is the fact that first and foremost we are writing about people, and people are all individual and unique. I have even met identical male twins that were different in many ways (especially in their treatment of women). I’ve read many books and one issue guaranteed to throw me out of a story is stereotyping. I like the occasional alpha male sex fest, but only if there is enough plot and characterisation to satisfy my needs, as a reader too 😉

    I agree with everything that is written in this post, but it is easy for a discussion like this to devolve into a who can and cannot write queer books, or can women write gay romance?

    On the back of reading this Tea Time post, I was led to one, which appeared on ‘Bisexual Books’, and although I felt I should have been agreeing with the subject matter – I found it really offensive – and I count myself as one of the queer people they were supposedly defending. (www.bisexual-books.tumblr.com/post/112807581635/advice-for-straight-writers-of-queer-characters)

    This post finished with more advice for the awful straight people –

    “And finally, take our feedback to heart. If anyone deserves a cookie, it’s probably the queer people who are taking time out of their busy lives to educate you. Even when you are being awful.”

    • BJ, responding to the 2nd part of your comment: I understand your upset, that post was quite angry & the tone confrontational & a little hard to take. There were a number of things I didn’t agree with either. But I can understand their anger at what happened. And they make some valid points, particularly about privileged people reacting defensively when marginalized people point out stuff they are doing that offends or hurts, rather than listening.

      This is probably way too much to put here, but I’m reminded of this post, by this guy you might know? This thing, here: http://www.quicunquevult.com/axes-allies which, among other things, said this:

      “There is a slightly bullshit concept in management called “the mirror and the window” which is basically that you have be sure to get the right balance between looking “out of the window” at other people and “in the mirror” at yourself. I have no idea how this applies to business, but I think – from the point of view an online community – it means getting the right balance between listening to what other people say and reflecting in good faith on what they’ve said. Again, I have no doubt that the people who say they want to normalise queer relationships actually mean it, but some people do feel objectified by some aspects of the community, and I feel it behoves us to look at ourselves and ask why.”

      And this:

      “The fact that some gay men do not find the context or presentation of current m/m fiction problematic does not change the fact that others do. And, perhaps more importantly it does not abnegate the responsibility that the community (particularly those members of the community who are keen to see themselves as allies) has to take questions of appropriation and objectification seriously. All of us, particularly those of us who write about members of groups to which we do not belong, have a responsibility to treat one another with respect, and to sincerely reflect on our own behaviour as it affects others.”

      I used to be somewhat defensive about criticisms of m/m myself, but that ^^^ post completely changed my mind. I think the other poster was, in a way, trying to say the same thing, at least in part. They expressed it in a much angrier way, but sometimes people who’ve been repeatedly hurt & frustrated & ignored get angry :/

      And I apologize, Alexis, I realize I’m all over these comments :P. Sorry! At least this time half of it was quoting stuff *you* said 😉

      • I’m sorry I brought this article up….when AJ had talked simply and rationally about an important point…

        I read it again today and looked further at the site and my thoughts have not changed.

  5. Brilliant post! I’m personally not a big fan of these tropes, because they don’t reflect the kind of men that I like to read about or find interesting/attractive. I’m just happy there are writers out there writing other types of characters, and that I have found some of you. And isn’t it amazing that people are shocked by someone admitting that sex isn’t their number one priority?

  6. One of the things that’s put me off romance (of any flavor) for YEARS is the rampant gender essentialism and garbage evo-psych. I get enough gender policing in real life without paying money for it by way of entertainment. No, “alpha males” are not a real thing (they’re a misreading of wolf behavior in captivity) and most people who talk this hard biological-determinist line have zero training in actual biology. (Want real nuance about “nature and nurture”? Talk to an actual working geneticist.)

    I have many proteges and nephews-by-affinity, and the theme of “what can I do with what I feel” and expectations of masculinity (often stereotyped masculinity) comes up a lot in our conversations. It goes double or triple for young Black and Indigenous men. There’s a huge hunger out there for art that shows the full range of emotional ways-of-being.

    In whole human beings, strength and vulnerability co-exist without contradiction. We are all made of flesh and blood, not steel or bullet-proof composite. Suppress true feeling, and it comes out sideways in all kinds of vicious ways.

    I read a lot of queer romance now, because that’s where I’m most likely to find serious consideration of the struggle with gender roles and rigid notions of gender. I’ve also read science fiction for years. There’s a dearth of works examining social axioms on race, gender, etc in a genre that makes much of its intellectual adventurousness, but that’s changing.

    Personal thanks, Alexis, as a writer whose work has given me great hope both as a reader and a writer.

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