Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The politics of M/M romance and Alex Beecroft's BLESSED ISLE

In 1969, Kate Millett became one of the earliest feminist literary critics to protest the sexism prevalent in books by men. Sexual Politics, one of the most important books of second-wave feminism, argues that male authors, even the most lauded literary writers, typically depict women not as they are, but as patriarchy imagines them (or fears they might be). Using sex and sex scenes in particular to degrade and dehumanize women, male authors see women through a patriarchal lens, a lens that views it as natural that women are subordinate to men, or sees woman as simply an inferior sort of man. Such depictions of women are not simply drawn from nature, Millett argued, but instead reflect the socially-conditioned belief system of a patriarchal culture.

Millett's method—analyze literature written by members of a dominant group not from the perspective of that dominant group, but rather from the perspective of the oppressed—has been effectively adopted by other subordinate groups in the forty+ years that followed Sexual Politics. Literary critics have used her approach to identify and question the naturalness of other "isms" in the literary canon: not just sexism, but racism, colonialism, classism, and able-bodyism, to name just a few. And not just in the canon, but now, in popular literature such as romance, too.

The project of cultural critique becomes more fraught, however, when subordinate and dominant identities fail to break along clear, clean lines. For instance, do gay men who criticize straight women who write m/m (male/male) romances write from a position of oppression (as homosexuals pointing out the heteronormativity of such writing)? Or from a position of power (as men telling women how and what they should and should not write)? Are hetero female writers objectifying men in their novels, treating them as sex toys because they do not depict them from a perspective of authenticity? Are they appropriating gay male experiences? Fetishizing them? If so, are those necessarily un-feminist acts? Whose fantasies are m/m fictions bringing to life—gay men's? Hetero women's? Both? Neither?

The tangled politics of these questions have made me wary of reviewing m/m romances on this blog. But I've decided that such reticence is a cop-out, a cowardly refusal to get a bit wet when wading into potentially stormy waters. So I've decided to, if not take the plunge, at least to kick a toe in the waves, hoping to learn more about the issues at stake in this contested sub-genre, as well as to hash out for myself what might constitute a "feminist m/m romance" (if such a thing is even a possibility). Feel free to chime in with your thoughts about the possibilities and problematic aspects of such a genre.

My toe in the water today takes the form of a review of a specific m/m romance that strikes me as feminist, and my exploration about why it feels feminist to me. Historical romance is the genre that brought me back to reading romance after I had given it up after my Women's Studies consciousness-raising, and Alex Beecroft was the first writer of m/m romance that I read after returning to romance. So it seems fitting to begin with a work by this author, a novella originally published in the 2009 collection Hidden Conflict: Tales from Lost Voices in Battle (Cheyenne Publishing), but just reissued as a stand-alone e-novella this past December by Riptide Publishing.

Convict transportation ship Neptune
Told in the form of an alternating journal or diary, Blessed Isle tells of the burgeoning romance between eighteenth-century ship's captain Harry Thompson and his new First Lieutenant, Garnet Littleton. Harry, eager to prove his worthiness because of his plebeian origins (most naval officers were from the aristocracy and gentry), eagerly takes on the supervision of the second fleet to convey convicts to the new colony of Australia. But his voyage is doomed, not only due to storm, sickness, and revolt, but, at least in Harry's mind, to the immediate and overwhelming attraction he feels at the sight of the dark-haired aristocratic Lieutenant Littleton singing in the ship's wardroom.

Beecroft deploys the dual-stranded narrative to multiple effects. Allowing each character to "speak" through the journal allows each man's voice, and thus each's unique character, to emerge. The younger Garnet, secure in his aristocratic privilege, is a cocky daredevil. His narrative uses "I" far more often than Harry's does, and he is not at all shy about crowing about his own talents: "Evidently [Harry] was so dazzled by my numerous and wondrous qualities that my message utterly passed him by," Garnet remembers of their first meeting. Garnet is also more knowledgeable about the cultural codes of engaging in sex with other men, familiar with the right song to sing to bait his "hook," cautious never to engage in a liaison with a tar for fear that as an officer he could never be entirely certain the man had not felt coerced.

Harry, in contrast, is dutiful and hardworking; not willing to settle for climbing his way up from impressed seaman to lieutenant, he set his mind on becoming a captain, and committed himself to performing the heroic act that such an ambition required. In his journal entries, Harry writes more plainly and directly, with far fewer flourishes; his imagery tends to the mundane, natural world ("I took to the Navy as a bird, falling from its nest, takes to flight") rather than to the classical texts that the educated Garnet can reference at will.

Harry and Garnet have different attitudes to their sexuality, too, which are made clear through the dual narrative. Harry is not afraid to die, but fears disgrace if he acts on his attraction to Garnet. Garnet, in contrast, is more than willing to risk everything in order to sate his desires for Harry. Not just faceless, fetishized bodies upon which readers can thrust their own fantasies, then, Harry and Garnet emerge, through the dual narrative, as unique, nuanced, complicated individuals.

The dual narrative also allows Beecroft to present multiple interpretations of events, and different ideological viewpoints, without endorsing one or the other as correct. Harry points to the sight of Garnet as a signal of his doom, echoing the trajectory of much early gay fiction, in which romance inevitably ended in tragedy. Garnet, however, suggests it is not their attraction that caused the convoy's misfortunes, but rather Harry's rejection of it, "the most extraordinary event of my life, and I'm sure of his." "Oh, no, I thought, you do not feel the thunderbolt of Jove, and go on as though nothing has happened, The gods punish hubris such as that. You do not have the strength to fight against Olympus."

Garnet and Harry also have different takes on what constitutes healthy male/male sexuality. Harry falls clearly into what many critics might term the heteronormative (but which might be better termed the monogamy-normative) camp:

But it leaves a bad taste in my mouth that this love should go unrecorded, that posterity should judge men like myself—like him—by the poor fools driven out to grope strangers in alleys, all fumbling fingers and anonymous grunting. Those of us uncaught must perforce be silent. But one day, perhaps, when the world has grown kinder, this journal will be read by less jaundiced eyes. To them I will be able to say there was fidelity here, and love, and long-suffering sacrifice, and joy.

But this passage is soon contested by Garnet's thoughts, giving voice to a different view on sex between men:

I had enjoyed the game of it, in the past. I did not enter the Navy because I feared to put myself at risk, and I have always found that life tastes sweetest with a slight spicing of terror. If you go looking for them, there are always men to be found, three weeks out of port, who are willing to take the chance of a quick fumble. From a whisper misjudged so that the lips brush skin, to the torment of squeezing by, just that little bit too close in a confined space. All this leading to a hasty climax on the cable tier or in the spirit room. The gunpowder magazine, that's my favourite. Biting kisses and the little death in the dark, surrounded by all that slumbering fire.
     I'm not a gambling man, despite what my present neighbours may tell you. But I believe the reckless compulsion a man finds at the tables, I found in this. Knowing I could be destroyed at any moment, loving the high stakes and the thrill.

A feminist romance embraces the idea that there are multiple avenues of healthy, satisfying sexuality. It also recognizes that one person can never be enough in him or herself to satisfy every need of another. When Harry and Garnet are shipwrecked, and spend eight months alone together on a deserted island, Harry regards their land as a "Blessed Isle," a space where he and Garnet have "liberty to indulge our natures with no condemnation and no risk." But for the extroverted Garnet,  the solitary days on the island grow increasingly dark, despite the joy he takes in his new sexual relationship with Harry. He tries to hide his melancholy, but finally admits: "I miss other people, Harry. I am... sorry, but much as I love you, you cannot be a sufficient replacement for all civilized society." As soon as Harry understands Garnet's pain, he determines to find a way to allow them to escape what to Garnet has become a prison, even though to Harry, it is a refuge.

Harry and Garnet fight their way to a happy ending, each learning from the other the true meanings of cowardice and freedom, the need for both self-protection and self-expression. Though in public, they must still masquerade, in private, and inside themselves, they are no longer burdened by shame, but sent aloft by joy.

If feminism can be expanded to include not just equal rights between woman and men, but equitable relationships between all romantic partners, no matter their sex or gender, then Beecroft's Blessed Isle can surely stand as a feminist text, despite not featuring a single woman in a major or supporting role.

Alex Beecroft, Blessed Isle. Riptide Publishing, 2012.

Illustration/Photo Credits
Kate Millett on Time: Vitro Nasu
Raining Men: Romantic Times Book Reviews
Neptune: Australian History.org
Ship Journal: Wanelo
Quill pens: TJ Bookarts

Thanks to netgalley for providing me with a copy of Blessed Isle

Next time on RNFF
RNFF Pet Peeve: "Baby, you're all that I need"


  1. I adored this review! I'm a newcomer to your blog and it's going on my favs list. I can't wait to read more of your reviews with this unique perspective.

  2. J9:

    Welcome! Glad you stopped by, and that you enjoy the blog.

  3. It's the ability to bypass the baggage of gender roles so the characters meet on more of an equal playing field that most attracts me to m/m romance. Also, it expands one's horizons regarding what constitutes romance and an appropriate relationship and permits the consideration of acts -- painplay, bloodplay, rough sex, etc. -- that run the risk of coming across as abusive in a heterosexual relationship if the woman is the submissive or masochist, as is generally the case in romance novels.

    It would be great if we could have these same freedoms with heterosexual characters, but it's still not okay for women to have the freedom of choice granted to men. Until we do, m/m romance is the best way to model such relationships.

    Address the potential elephant in the room, f/f, in addition to possibly appealing less to heterosexual women than m/m, can't overcome the ways in which women are oppressed. Although the playing field is leveled, the characters are still subject to the same societal and physical constraints.

  4. Some of the comments on this interview of genderqueer female-bodied m/m author James Buchanan from the Popular Romance Project's blog, as well as Buchanan's remarks themselves, echo and expand on my point above.

  5. I don't think I agree with your point, lawless523. It's something m/m readers say a lot and I never knew how to express why I disagreed until I read this article Gendered power relationships and m/m

    "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 power relationships” more generally."

    1. After reading Sunita's post, I still disagree with you and with her, Anonymous. M/m avoids gendered power relationships precisely because they deal with same-gender couples in which gender is not an outright part of the power balance.

      As for Sunita's post: I would need examples of books or tropes that do it right and wrong to be able to follow her argument. Those points the social worker mentions? Those are mostly human issues applicable to any romantic couple without regard to gender.

      The only way I see gender applying at all is with regard to masculine and feminine roles. But it stands to reason that the partner who is better at cooking, likes it more, or has more time for it will do the cooking. Ditto for childcare (taking into account the fact that the child or children's biological parent will have to take a lead role when it comes to discipline), etc., etc.

      Either I'm dense or Sunita and I are reading vastly different books, because (a) masculine/feminine issues don't come up as often in the books I read as you'd expect; my observation is that the MCs tend to both fall fairly far on the "traditionally masculine" end of the spectrum emotionally, culturally, and (in most instances) physically; and (b) when they do, the books I've read explore them in a nuanced and non-exploitative way. The issue I see crop up the most often is that authors tend to align who tops and who bottoms with height and relative masculinity/femininity, although Tere Michaels' Love and Loyalty (which I like much better than the rest of the Faith, Love, and Devotion series) consciously reverses that.

  6. You're right, Anonymous, I did not spell out that I was talking about m/f gender dynamics, but since we're contrasting m/m romance with m/f, I assumed that was already implied and understood. Cue the old adage about what happens when one assumes things ...

    Before I proceed, it would be useful for me to know if you are the author of the post you link to or someone pointing to it as a better way of analyzing the topic before entering into a further discussion on the merits.

    BTW, Jackie, I read Blessed Isle in the meantime and loved it. It was a wonderfully crafted and well=thought out story. I'd been avoiding Beecroft's work because I thought the novella of hers I purchased -- I don't remember the title off the top of my head, but it was gothic/supernatural, not Age of Sail -- had problems, I mostly avoid historical m/m romance anyway because it's so tough to pull off a believable happy ending, and Age of Sail -- her specialty -- doesn't particularly ping my radar. So thank you for highlighting this book.

    PS -- This is Lawless523, or just plain lawless for simiplcity's sake; I'm signing in through Google rather than LiveJournal because Blogger's been unable to verify my OpenID credentials. Since I've never signed in this way before, I'm not sure what's going to show up when (or if) this posts.

  7. Glad you enjoyed "Blessed Isle," Lawless. Bet you'd like Beecroft's FALSE COLORS, too.

    Tried to begin thinking about the issues you pointed to re the controversy over the Lambda awards and m/m women writers in this post; http://romancenovelsforfeminists.blogspot.com/2013/02/feminist-guidelines-for-reading-mm.html

    Did you see it?

  8. Yes, but I'm not at a point where I can write intelligently about it. I bookmarked some links I wanted to include -- including one from Ann Somerville, who's sometimes on the other side of this debate from me -- and am not in a position to put it together at the moment. Problems with signing in and posting are hampering me, too.

    I agree with those commenters -- I know Merrian was one; I'm not sure if the other was Kaetrin or someone else -- who said that there is thoughtful m/m and cliched or exploitative m/m, just as there is with any genre. It's no worse than in het genre romance, and to my mind, much better.

    Some of that may be due to the fact that it's a more unconventional narrative in which how the MCs arrive at their HEA is more open to negotiation because such relationships are only now being accepted as normal by significant swathes of society at large.

    I also don't think that you need to go through all this soul-searching before reading in the genre. That might make some sense for people writing it, but women are not the primary source of oppression gay men face. I'd like to expand on that at a later time.


  9. Lawless, I look forward to your future thoughts. I definitely see your point that m/m is a more "unconventional" genre because "such relationships are only now being accepted as normal by significant swathes of society at large." Not a big fan of the word "normal," though, because it implies that there is one way to be "normal" -- would like to see different types of relationships be acceptable, without them having to conform to a rigid construction of what is "normal."

    I'll be interested to hear your thoughts about why "women are not the primary sources of oppression gay men face." Even if they aren't the PRIMARY source, might they be A source all the same? Can the heterosexual imperative in much conventionally-published romance be a source of oppression for homosexual readers and writers?

    I've started to wade into the m/m genre. But I'm definitely going to bring my searching soul along for the ride ;-)

  10. I was using the term "normal" in the same way the Wikipedia page on intersex conditions does: as something that may be rare (in the sense of applying to a small percentage of the population -- the estimates I've seen for the percentage of people who are gay, lesbian, or bisexual generally range from 2% to 5%, although that's subject to self-reporting error; my sense is that all told, it might actually be more like 10%) but occurs regularly and predictably. That's not the original meaning of the word "normal," but it seeks to recharacterize what's been viewed as aberrant and depraved as "normal" instead of "abnormal."

    Here's the broadbrush explanation: it's called "patriarchy" for a reason. The primary oppression of gay men occurs because they are perceived as not meeting appropriate standards of masculinity and, secondarily, not participating in procreative activities. It's straight men who are most threatened by this -- women in general don't care, and some are so glad to have male friends who aren't going to molest them that they can be characterized as "fag hags" -- and straight men who have the power to make this a society-wide concern. (I've yet to hear of women beating up gay men for being gay, and even gay slurs seem to be more the province of men.)

    Gay men are therefore viewed as aberrant, particularly by those who believe reproduction is our primary purpose and that male sexuality is centered around conquering and impregnating women. Those people may make an exception for women who wish to remain celibate, but men are supposed to be out sowing their seed productively.

    Under this paradigm, women can be homophobic, but they are not the primary source of it. In fact, they're as much victims as gay men (see: primary purpose of men is to conquer and impregnate women). Also, it's my observation that if straight men are taken out of the equation, gay men consider themselves privileged over women of the same or more oppressed groups than them; i.e., white gay men feel superior to white women and so on.

    And, finally, no female writer that I know of who writes m/m or gay romance looks down on gay men or consciously aspires to exploit them. Writing it is socially disfavored enough that no one would do it if the writer weren't committed to the humanity of her MCs.

    I see m/m romance as feminist because writing about gay men, often with graphic descriptions of gay sex, is itself a rejection of heteronormativity, although I realize things like who tops and bottoms and the privileging of anal sex can drag heteronormativity back in.

    Some writers do a better job than others of keeping it real, but keep in mind some stories' fantasy or sci fi setting. In some cases, stories are used to work out issues of importance to women such as under what circumstances and how men can open up and discuss their feelings (often an internal obstacle to a HEA/HFN), the effect of promiscuity or fear of commitment on a relationship, and what a balanced romantic partnership looks like. But so what? If the characters come across as real and what's capable of factual confirmation is confirmed, how is this oppressive? It comes really close to me to saying women aren't capable of writing male characters, which is totally bogus.

    Contrast this with whites writing about black/African-American culture, where whites historically profited from slavery and all of them still benefit from white privilege.

    1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  11. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  12. Two anonymous posters put up comments today focused on denigrating other posters, rather than engaging with the issues posters wrote about. I've taken down said posts, and will be creating a policy about what constitutes abusive posting for everyone's future reference.

    1. Is there some way of contacting you privately about this, seeing as it looks like at least one of those comments was a response to mine? I can be contacted at my Livejournal account (username I use to sign in at livejournal dot com).

    2. Hey, Lawless:

      You can contact me via email: romancenovelsforfeminists@gmail.com