Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Gender and the Appeal of the Male/Male Romance: Alexis Hall's HOW TO BANG A BILLIONAIRE

In the comments section of  my first review of a m/m romance on this blog (Alex Beecroft's Blessed Isle, back in 2013), several commenters chimed in with reasons why they found m/m romance novels appealing, often more appealing than heterosexual romances. For example, commenter Lawless wrote, "It's the ability to bypass the baggage of gender roles so that the characters meet on more of an equal playing field that most attracts me to m/m romance." At the time, I wasn't that persuaded by such arguments; aren't there power dynamics at work in romances with only male protagonists, just as much as there are in books with a man and woman as the leads?

But I'm starting to see this argument in a new light, after reading the first installment of Alexis Hall's new Arden St. Ives series, How to Bang a Billionaire. In a reimagining/retelling of 50 Shades of Grey, Hall makes the classic feminist move—switch the sex of a story's main character, and see if the narrative still makes sense; if it doesn't, said narrative is probably pretty mired in stereotypical gender norms. In Hall's story, female college senior Anastasia Steele changes not only sex, but also sexual orientation and nationality. Third-year Oxford University student Arden St. James, an irreverent, distractible, easily-embarrassed commitment-phobe, first meets his billionaire not by conducting an in-person interview for the college newspaper, but, in irreverent Hall fashion, by dialing him up during a telethon fundraising call on behalf of the university:

"Hello! I'm Arden St. Ives, calling from St. Sebastian's Coll—"

After enduring a long series of hang-ups, Arden follows the fundraisers' advice to put a smile in his voice ("I made sure I was grinning as if I'd swallowed a coat hanger" [4]) and gets a caller to remain on the line long enough for him to get in a second sentence. And a third. And more. Each less conventional, more argumentative, and more entertaining, than the last. Until suddenly Arden is dreaming about the stern stranger on the other end of the phone line, wishing he could convince Mr. Caspian Hart to telebond, not just teleflirt, with him.

Arden's X-rated dreams come to spectacular, if brief, life when Hart decides to attend the in-person fundraiser to which Arden invited him during their brief call. During which Arden finds himself falling to his knees on a shaded balcony, offering comfort to the controlled, compelling man in the only way he senses Hart will accept it—in the form of sexual submission.

And it was at this point that I really got what Lawless and other m/m fans were talking about, when they wrote about gendered power relations being "bypassed" in the subgenre. In 50 Shades, Anastasia Steele has little to no familiarity with BDSM practices; Christian Grey serves as her tutor to the pleasures and pains of the Red Room. In contrast, Hall's Arden is well-informed, both about the existence of BDSM and about his own "tastes," which lean towards the sexually submissive. But even if Ana had been sexually skilled, and Arden an innocent, the question of why each gets turned on by being sexually submissive feels different when it is asked of a man rather than of a woman. When I pose that question to a woman (or to a female character), I cannot help but also ask the related question: Is a woman simply taking on the stereotypical feminine role when she accepts, or even wants, the role of sexual submissive? Does her desire to do so stem as much from, if not more from, her desire to embody "natural" femininity as it does from any internal, inherent desires? And if it does, is it problematic for her to act on those desires? By acting on them, is she participating in perpetuating, or at least tacitly accepting, stereotypes that insist that women be submissive in all areas of life, not just the sexual?

But when I ask the same question of Arden, or another male character, that question doesn't come weighted with the same gendered baggage. Identifying as male, but simultaneously identifying as sexually submissive, Arden is acting on a desire that goes against the social norm of what it means to be masculine. And thus his desire, his act, comes across as rebellion against, rather than acceptance of, the expected, rather than suspected as possibly collusion with repressive gender norms, as it might have if he were, or identified as, a woman.

Does it matter where one's sexual desires come from? Caspian Hart, mired in guilt for his sadistic sexual proclivities, certainly believes so. But Arden, in his joking, digressive, not quite sure way, offers a different possibility:

     "Those impulses in me aren't. . . that is, they don't come from a good place."
     "Well, neither do mushrooms, but they're delicious in garlic."
     Caspian made a sound that could have been a laugh. "I have no idea what you're trying to say."
     "Just that maybe it doesn't matter where your desires from from? Only that they're there and I. . .um . . .welcome them."
     "But I don't like what they make me."
     "Who says they have to make you anything? What you're into can sometimes just be what you're into." (315)

I'm guessing from other hints in the story that ultimately the series is going to come down on Arden's, rather than Caspian's side in this debate. But would it if Arden had been a woman, rather than a man? Ad if it did, would I be as accepting of it?

Is a cigar sometimes just a cigar? Or does it only have the potential to be a cigar if it is a man, rather than a woman, who is smoking it?

Photo credits:
Feminine stereotypes: Mindscaped

Alexis Hall
Forever Yours, 2017


  1. I think there are times when it can be really interesting to explore the power issues between a man and a woman, but I also think there are times when it's nice to leave that out (and happily, I write m/m and m/f, so I have that option!).

    In a story like 50 Shades where there are already so many OTHER power imbalances (wealth, experience, personality, etc.) I think there's too much going on to really be sure what's a gender issue and what's some other sort of issue. As I understand Hall's new book (definitely on my TBR, but I haven't read it yet) he's taking out a couple of the issues (gender and experience), leaving a couple others (wealth and personality) in, and for me? I feel as if that would allow a more... controlled? Is that an appropriate word for a book with BDSM elements?... exploration.

    And, yes, for me, it would likely be a more satisfying HEA with this setup.

    1. I hadn't heard that, Kate, that Hall's intention in writing was to take out a few of the power imbalances that tend to overwhelm in 50 SHADES. Wealth, personality, BDSM dom, they're all still there in Caspian. And Arden is clutzy, unsure where he's going professionally, and sexually submissive. But Arden has sexual experience, and knows what he likes, sexually, which made a big difference for me in reading the story. And, yes, he's not a girl...

    2. Oh, sorry, I was just speculating about the author's intentions - it's what makes sense to me, or how/why I'd do it, but I don't know for sure that it's why HE did it...

  2. "But even if Ana had been sexually skilled, and Arden an innocent, the question of why each gets turned on by being sexually submissive feels different when it is asked of a man rather than of a woman."

    This gave me pause.

    I think the possibilities here have a lot to do with author commitment to (and as a consequence experience with) interrogating genre through writing genre, and also in exploring gender and sexual orientation with nuance. I think it's pretty clear that this is Alexis Hall's particular cup-of-tea.

    Most genre romances I read - both m/m and f/m - don't engage with exploring gender and sexual preference with this heightened level of intent. I don't think this means that there couldn't be a successful f/m romance inversion of the billionaire dom trope, featuring a young, sexually experienced female sub - just that someone would need to be thoroughly committed to the project to pull it off (so to speak).