First, an aside.
Hi all. I think I started writing this post intending it to be about blogging and nonfiction and how I feel rather terrible because I read an admittedly small amount of commentary and blog posts. I try to read reviews, and I try to check out things I see people talking about on Twitter, but if we're being wholly honest I'm on Twitter for fairly brief periods of time in order to link to my own reviews and signal boost when possible projects and people I like and occasionally rant. Otherwise I'm normally stuck off in my own little world feverishly reading fiction and poetry and nonfiction and working on reviews (or I'm at work doing prepress stuff). So I don't read as much blog content as I'd like and feel a bit "out of loop" and somewhat "out of the community" because I just can't be around keeping track of what's going on. But yes, I read the Book Smugglers essay and thought it was quite interesting. This is not a review of that essay, nor really a response to it. As always on Saturdays, this is just something that got me thinking, and so yeah, I'm thinking a bit about romance. And me. And masculinity.
It's sad that I feel the need to preface pretty much everything after this two ways. First, I am a writer of romance. Queer, mostly M/M romance. Second, this is all my opinion. With a grain of salt and all that. I say it's sad because all that qualifies one to speak on any subject is having eyes that see and feelers that, well, feel. I don't need to read romance, or write romance, in order to have opinions on it, nor to make those opinions valid. To most romance gatekeepers, I have not read enough romance. To most SFF gatekeepers, I have probably not read enough SFF. There is no magical amount of romance one needs to read to have an opinion, though, nor some very-logical-I'm-sure amount of old SFF I need to have read to stand here (well sit, but still), and say something about it. My first point (indeed most of my point) is about perceptions, after all, and genre, so...
In some ways Masculine and Feminine are among the oldest genres that exist. Labels that "ease" in categorizing people and actions. Sewing? Feminine! Racing? Masculine! Love stories? Feminine! Spaceships? Masculine! It's an old old old old lie that people use to try and value things based on perception and power. I don't believe in masculine or feminine actions or ideas or ideals or emotions. Why? Because the same action being performed by two different people can be either masculine or feminine, depending on how the person performing the action is perceived. A woman sewing a blanket? Feminine! A man sewing a leg wound? Masculine! A man racing down the freeway for the thrill? Masculine! A female racing down the freeway because kids are late for school? Feminine! And even further. A man will be judged more masculine for being argumentative about something he's passionate about and a woman more feminine. A man is more masculine for forgetting where his keys are (a typical guy, right?) but a woman is more feminine (what an airhead!). These actions are the same. And colors and other "gendered" things that in the past have been coded masculine are now coded feminine, and vice versa, so any argument that masculinity and femininity are innate and objective are just bullshit. Giving birth is not feminine and ejaculating through a penis is not masculine.
Part of what bothers me about genres, then, is that they force things into boxes that don't really fit and that exist in a constant double-standard where some genres are valued and some are not. And romance occupies a very interesting place as far as genres go. Because in many ways anything that codes as too feminine just sort of gets lumped in that direction. It becomes anathema to anyone who builds their libraries around ideas of masculinity. Which brings me back to me. I grew up on "masculine" fantasy, believing that the books I was recommended by librarians and classmates where what I should be reading. Books by white men. So, as an adult, when I joined Goodreads and started putting up the books I had read, lo and behold I find that probably out of the first 500 books I had read growing up, maybe 20 were not by men, maybe 50 by not white men (and that's probably being generous). And when I was younger I probably would have been right there defending my reading choices as good because "I just like science fiction and fantasy." Which, in some ways, is true. I do like science fiction and fantasy. But what I probably should have said was "I am desperately afraid."
Because, really, that's what it is. Young boys are taught to fear emasculation. Under threat of violence, social shunning, and a slew of other tools. You know, I love the episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine where Rom and the rest of Quark's employees decide to unionize. Not because it's the greatest episode but because of something that Quark says. To paraphrase, he describes why the effort to unionize will fail. People don't want to dismantle the system of exploiter and exploited, not because they like being exploited, but because they want to be the exploiter. So no matter how they suffer under it, they still cling to it, prop it up, perpetuate it in hopes of gaining access to the class of people who are on top. Even if they never manage it, even if it's mostly illusion used to make them compliant. And that idea works for much more than economics. In my mind that is how much of masculinity operates, where boys cling to masculinity because it offers them a way to be better than others, to have power over others. And it's not just boys, but a whole maculine/feminine hierarchy that creates a system of privilege.
But wait, what about romance? I found romance fairly late (kind of). I mean, there's a lot of SFF that would be considered romance if published with different covers. There are whole slews of urban fantasy/paranormal romance books that could be one or the other or both. This is partly why I find genre such a frustrating thing. Because a book written with a female-sounding name is a romance but with a male-sounding name is urban fantasy? Again, this is why masculine and feminine are such dangerous and misleading categories. For what it's worth, romances do typically have to have some, you know, romantic elements, but most stories do so yeah, there you are. Which is not to say that romances are all good. But neither are all SFF. The bad can be incredibly, incredibly bad in both. But it's the same kind of bad. The same adherence and propping up of genre and gender roles, of systems of oppression (and just some bad writing, which again, exists in both). But there is progressive, subversive romance just as there is progressive, subversive SFF. To me, there's not an awful lot of difference (and in some instances the people writing the stories in both "genres" aren't even different).
So what? A thousand words later and what the hell am I saying? That I wish that genres didn't exist, in many ways. Genres are toxic. For whatever good they might do in helping people identify as fans, and more easily find books to read, they do way more harm in how they gatekeep and how the herd and how they prop up oppression and pass along abuse. Chances are boys and men who want to cross the aisle and read from the romance shelves have to deal with a lot of shit. Not misandry, whatever anyone says, but misogyny. This does not somehow make men "the real victims." This is not me saying "WHAT ABOUT TEH MENS?!" Toxic masculinity does not harm everyone equally, though it does harm everyone. Men are the least harmed group because they get the most power from the system, because they have quickest access to become the exploiters and the least incentive then to dismantle the means by which they are privileged. What I had hoped in rambling my way through my own thoughts was to basically argue that any argument that uses genre, that uses femininity/masculinity, as a primary given for something being bad, is flawed to me. (Not that I believe this was the case with the Book Smugglers essay, which I thought was talking about a certain kind of character and situation [the trope in question in the title of the essay] rather than a certain genre, and definitely not a trope absent from books marketed as romance, but present across genres, as the essay did rather show).
But wait, I just said toxic masculinity, didn't I? Yes, kind of. What I mean by toxic masculinity is the very belief that masculinity and femininity are innate. Immutable and all powerful. Self-referential perhaps, but in my mind a fine way of conceptualizing the issue. And yeah, there you are, my hopefully somewhat coherent thoughts. Thanks for reading!
All the best,