Saturday, March 23, 2013

My Fantasy Mess: A Woman Writing M/M Fiction

So, my rambling, convoluted fantasy mess is finally seeing the light of day. This story started out as random pre-teen attempts at fiction. I began writing it, with a female protagonist, at age fourteen. I had just finished reading something or other by Raymond E. Feist, and it opened my eyes to the wonder of the fantasy genre. The story became a sprawling work, covering hundreds of pages across five different incarnations, and it never felt right.
It was, in fact, the story that convinced me I cannot write about women (or magic, dragons, sorcery, elves, fantasy creatures, or magical weaponry, but that’s a whole other issue).
A lot of straight women who read and write m/m fiction argue that it's all about sex. They'll insist that reading m/m fiction is a voyeuristic activity, and that they prefer to focus on the alpha male figure and they don't want to bother paying attention to the female character at all. Obviously, if you're titillated by an alpha male, two are better than one . But I can honestly say that sex appeal isn’t the only reason I write about men. The main reason is that men are free to be assholes.
Every time I tried to write my little fantasy story with a female character I ended up hating it. I discovered it was nearly impossible to write a female main character who acted aggressive, because it came across as bitchy—even to me. I couldn’t write a female main character who was insulted when the hero acted jealous and possessive, because it just read as someone being bitchy—even to me. If the female lead resisted too much, it was prudish, regardless of whatever issues she might have been dealing with, it was just unappealing.
No matter what I ended up writing, if I tried to write a female character with real reactions to her circumstances, it sucked. I, and I think most romance fans, am so entrenched is societal prejudices and stereotypes that I couldn’t write a real female character who was still likable. That depressed me a bit. Until, while I was very bored one day in college, I came across the world of m/m fanfiction. I don’t know how no one noticed how furiously I was blushing as I sat in that lecture hall covertly reading a fanfiction about two men falling in love. (Well, not love, but lust, definitely...) What really stunned me were those few gems of fiction where both characters interacted with one another as equals, where both characters were still likeable, realistic, and neither was expected to eventually equate sex with emotion and automatically submit to a feminized role in the relationship.
Men in romance, or any story, are free to be aggressive, independent, arrogant assholes. Instead of coming across as bitchy, their aggression defines them and makes them more appealing still. In our culture, the male perspective is privileged to experience the full range of human emotion without criticism. Despite the fact that a female character's behavior and emotions might be identical, the drive toward using social correction to maintain current gender dynamics is so strong that even in fiction, we stigmatize and shame female characters who act too masculine.
The male perspective is, unquestionably, the human perspective. The female perspective is always something less. 
If I were in a philosophical mood, I’d wonder why romance readers (who are mostly female) can’t let go of the stereotypes in their heads and embrace female protagonists who are aggressive, independent, arrogant, and bitchy. Even some women writing gay fiction can't seem to set aside their assumptions that relationships must contain an inherent power imbalance. They'll rant about equality for all--regardless of gender, gender identity, or sexuality--but they often write gay relationships in a way that recreates the dynamics of a fictionalized, objectified hetero relationship. I suspect such stories are the result of the same knee-jerk reactions women have been programmed to have toward any behavior that defies gender stereotypes. In real life, it manifests as everything from slut shaming to bullying a girl for acting like a tomb boy. As readers, it manifests itself in strict genre rules about how assertive a heroine is allowed to be, how much she is allowed to resist the advances of the hero, and how she needs to be when she finally submits. As writers, it's difficult to cast those knee-jerk reactions aside.

But as much as I hate gender stereotypes, I just want to tell stories about that most basic of human interactions—falling in love despite life’s difficulties.With male characters, I feel like I can write genuine human emotion, genuine human behavior, without facing the firing squad of romance fans who can’t stand bitchy heroines. Does it spare me from having to face all of those stereotypes, reactions, assumptions, and rules that feminists have so long struggled to coax the rest of society to even recognize? You betcha.
 It also opens up a whole world of issues about the relationship between m/m fiction and gay fiction. Many in the LGBT community are legitimately angry over women having the audacity to treat gay relationships like some kind of fetish. In a community and culture so focused on self-definition, group identities, and labels, such anger is understandable. There is definitely m/m fiction out there, written by women, that amounts to little more than the same exploitation found in fake lesbian porn marketed to straight men. And the offense felt by gay men is just as legitimate as the offended reaction of lesbians to the girl on girl porn.
But I would urge those readers who find themselves offended by the mere existence of m/m fiction to consider, for a moment, that every writer tends to have a different motive for selecting the type of story they want to tell. Some women write in this genre not to objectify or exploit gay relationships, but to explore the possibility of a truly equitable relationship with fully human characters. Personally, I don't think there is any other genre where a romantic relationship, free of the trappings of gender bias, can possibly be depicted--and that's the type of relationship I want to write about.

The sprawling fantasy mess is now posted here:

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