Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Gay Romance and Professional Sports: Sean Kennedy's TIGERS AND DEVILS

Romance novels have long been fascinated with the hero as professional athlete. From Susan Elizabeth Philips' Chicago Stars footballers to Rachel Gibson's Chinook hockey stars, Jill Shalvis's Pacific Heat baseballers to Erin McCarthy's NASCAR drivers, the celebrity athlete has a long history of dominating not only the sports page, but the contemporary romance bookstore shelves. The professional athlete has a hefty leg up on the hero competition, at least as far as traditional masculinity goes: competitive drive, ambition, aggression, and the dedication to a single goal are all required to excel at sport at the professional level. And let's not forget the amazing physical shape most professional sports stars are required to maintain, a level of fitness that proves not only aesthetically appealing to readers, but one that many books suggest translates into the most desirable sexual stamina and prowess. Thus the reader of the sports-hero romance can eagerly anticipate what's in store, masculinity-wise, before s/he even turns the first page.

What happens, though, when the sports star turns out to be gay? Reading last week's Sports Illustrated cover story on NBA player Jason Collins, and the subsequent responses to its announcement of the unsurprising fact that a gay man can play and succeed in a "major American team sport" reminded me of the ways in which male/male romance novels and novelists have been exploring this issue during the past decade. Jason Collins may or may not be the first pro gay athlete (see reports in The Atlantic New York Magazine, and Role Reboot, just to name a few), but he's certainly not the first to come out in the world of romance: just witness Goodreads list of "Best Gay Athletes," a list featuring 151 romance titles and counting.

One of the most interesting books on that list is Sean Kennedy's Tigers and Devils, which depicts the fallout after Declan Tyler, a famous Australian Football League player, is outed by the press. The novel's narrator is Declan's boyfriend, the self-proclaimed "arty wanker" Simon Murray, who meets Declan after the injured footballer overhears Simon defending his play even while admitting that Declan can "come across like a bit of an arrogant prick." Simon, the director of the independent film festival Triple F, has been out to his friends and family for years, although his family has taken a "don't discuss, don't get unnerved" approach to his sexuality. Declan, more cautious and guarded than the outspoken Simon ("I tend to rabbit on a lot"), has remained in the closet. Because of his attraction to Declan, Simon is more than willing to keep their long-distance relationship a secret; intriguingly, it is Simon's best friend, Roger, who takes umbrage at the sacrifice Declan's secret imposes on Simon. But after photographs of them embracing after Declan's father is hospitalized are leaked to the press, the point is moot. Kennedy's novel explores how two gay men can conduct a long-distance romance in the center of the public eye.

Two threads in the novel strike me as interesting to consider from a feminist angle. First, the way that Simon's comic interactions with his friend Roger and with Roger's wife, Fran, often simultaneously assert yet call into question the fixity of gender roles. When Simon tells Fran that Declan has called to ask him for a date, Fran asks:

    "So, what are you going to wear?"
     I looked at her, wondering if she thought I had suddenly grown a vagina in the past five minutes. "Clothes."
     She sighed. "Men."

Later, when Fran and Roger arrive on his doorstep to offer pre-date moral and sartorial support, Fran dives into Simon's closet, sorrowfully noting:

    "Simon, for a gay man, your wardrobe sucks."
     I glowered. "We're not all fashionistas or gym bunnies."
     "You should be at least one of them." Roger shrugged.

Simon suggests here that his masculinity trumps his sexuality when it comes to his interest in clothing. Is his rejection of the fashionista identity a rejection of the stereotypes associated with gay male identity? Or a rejection of qualities typically associated with the feminine? Or both? Later in the novel, when Declan asks Simon to accompany him to the Brownlow Medal ceremony (honoring the "fairest and best" Australian Football League player of the year), the issue of dress comes up once again, when Fran and Simon discuss the denigrating remarks sports commentators have been making in the wake of Declan's outing:

    "They did say I would look good in a dress, though. Y'know, because I'm a girl."
     "There are worse things than being called a girl."
     "That's true." I shrugged. "They also called me the little lady."
     "Wow, so they're misogynistic and homophobic. They're trying to tick every box, what else is new?"
     "You're not helping."
     "I could go dress shopping with you."
     "Shut up, Fran."

When Declan takes him suit shopping, Simon initially chooses a conservative one, hoping to avoid drawing the press's eye. But Declan urges Simon to choose something comfortable, knowing that his lover is "not going to be comfortable if you don't go as yourself." Ultimately, Simon compromises, pairing the conservative suit with a more colorful shirt and tie: not masculine, not feminine, but just Simon.

When feminine and masculine roles during sex itself come up for questioning, however, Simon proves far less willing to be tarred with anything hinting at femininity. When an obnoxious guest at his brother's engagement party asks Simon, "So, you know how Declan is like this really hot, good, footballer player? And you're like some guy in theatre or something? Does that make you, like, the woman?" Simon completely loses it: "You're old enough to have gained some life experience by now to know that was the stupidest fucking question you could have asked me. Maybe you should know what you're talking about before you go shooting your mouth off." When he attempts to explains to his Dad what's ticked him off, Dad clears his throat and asks the same question, albeit with genuine puzzlement: "Are you?" In many other places in the novel, Simon as narrator works to explain what it's like to be gay to a presumably heterosexual audience, expecting their lack of understanding, but when anyone presumed to think him a "woman," he's too angered to make any such effort. "I'm a man, and he's a man. We're gay because we like men. Neither of us is 'the woman.'" Declan, too, takes umbrage at such assumptions, walking out of a radio interview when a DJ asks him if he's a top or a bottom. The novel doesn't delve into the reasons for both men's anger—is it because of the BDSM associations of top/bottom? Because of the association of submissive service associated with being a "woman" ("Yes, Dad. I'm the woman, When we go home I hand Declan his pipe and slippers, put on my apron, and bake biscuits for him to take to training the next day," Simon initially answers his father with his typical sarcasm)? Does claiming both a gay and a masculine identity mean a man must reject anything that labels him feminine?

Simon may take issue with being thought a "woman," but the novel's larger message is that accepting traditional masculinity's reluctance to discuss feelings can prove problematic, no matter what gender or sexual preference one embraces. When Simon worries about Declan's rejecting his sexual advance, "Men," Fran sighed, not for the last time in her life. "It's hard enough being a woman and dating a guy. I can't imagine how much worse it would be when there are two guys in the equation not communicating with each other." And when Simon objects to Fran's plan that Simon fly out to Declan's home turf to console him after he's injured, Fran initially chalks it up to his gender: "Guys are such arseholes," she mutters. But she quickly goes on to suggest that it isn't just his gender, but his personality flaws, that stand in the way: "There are two reasons you don't want to do it. You're lazy, and you're chickenshit.... We know you love us, but you like to pretend you're all aloof and unreachable. That's what makes you chickenshit. Getting on a plane will show Declan how you feel, and you'd hate to be that transparent." Simon can hide behind the excuse of gender, but if he wants to make his relationship with Declan work, he needs to acknowledge that gender is just a cover, not a cause, for his unwillingness to communicate openly with his lover.

The majority of the problems that cause problems for Simon and Declan stem not from the notoriety and even verbal abuse they receive as a result of their high-profile romance, but instead from their inability to share their feelings with one another. Declan's used to running at the first sign of trouble; Simon prefers hiding behind a mask of sarcasm and rudeness. But until each proves "woman" enough to overcome their communication problems and talk openly about their emotions—not only the happiness and love, but the anger and pain their relationship causes—can they reach the happily ever after romance holds out as its defining promise.

Photo Credits:
Jason Collins: Sports Illustrated
Brownlow Medal: Coaches Corner
Emotions cartoon: Mark Anderson

Dreamspinner Press, 2012.

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1 comment:

  1. "Declan, too, takes umbrage at such assumptions, walking out of a radio interview when a DJ asks him if he's a top or a bottom. The novel doesn't delve into the reasons for both men's anger—is it because of the BDSM associations of top/bottom?"

    I would have thought it's because it's incredibly rude to ask someone such intimate questions about their sex life. I'd also assume that the interviewer wouldn't ask a cis heterosexual person that kind of question; there's perhaps an underlying assumption that anyone who isn't a cis heterosexual has a body/sex life which is of prurient entertainment value to cis heterosexuals.