I thought I’d throw my two penneth into this debate (because it hasn’t been discussed enough!!). For too long there has been an undercurrent of certain readers rejecting (queer) male characters that they refer to as chicks with dicks.
Firstly, I think that’s a horrible expression. Somehow it manages to be homophobic, transphobic and misogynistic all at once. I’m sure whoever coined it thought they were being sooooooooo witty. But what does it actually mean?
See, I happen to think that actually when people use that expression – or think about its usage – more often than not they’re confusing two entirely different things: (queer) male effeminacy; and bad writing.
Firstly there’s bad writing. These are the books written by women who simply cannot write men. Or, more to the point, cannot write about two men in a relationship without being able to escape the old paradigms of heteronormativity. So they write one big, butch alphaman, and they team him with a women who just happens to be named Clive. Clive doesn’t need to be a flamer for this to be so, but Clive will be like every other simpering, TSTL heroine that makes a reader’s eyes roll when they find him in het fiction named Clare.
Then there’s (queer) male effeminacy. This is a vast and complex area in itself, encompassing as it does everything from camp (high and low) to a propensity to tears to insecurity or being anything less than the romantic alphaman that everyone expects him to be. Hence queer is bracketed, because all men – gay or straight – have moments where they’re all little bit effeminate; just as all women – gay or straight – have moments where they’re a little bit butch.
Romance is a genre of clear gender boundaries. We all know how a romantic hero and heroine are supposed to look, think, feel and act. For every author out there trying to reinvent the genre, there are a hundred – a thousand – that cleave desperately to those old tropes. And the readers cling to them, too.
I’ve heard it suggested more times than I’ve had hot dinners that perhaps the growing appeal of m/m is a result of reader backlash against those very stereotypes – especially the TSTL heroine, who no self-respecting woman identifies with anymore. That’s a very nice idea – that reading and writing about queer men somehow empowers (heterosexual) women – but I don’t buy it. If those women really wanted empowering – if they felt that they needed it – then they would read and write stories with kick-ass heroines who don’t take no shit off of nobody. They wouldn’t erase themselves from the romantic landscape.
Rather, I think m/m is a way for those women to cling to those self-same paradigms without appearing to do so – by removing a cis gendered female from the narrative they can still swoon over hunky alphamen just as their forebears have done for the last three hundred years, without having to feel guilty about it. Without being derided for their desires or being accused of setting the feminist movement back a hundred years just because the idea of a big, strong man who sweeps her off her feet makes her knees weak.
We’re a little too fond of proscribing desire; of correlating what we want in the bedroom – even if only our fantasy bedroom – with where we belong in the world. Just because a woman wants a man to take charge and overwhelm her romantically, that doesn’t mean she doesn’t belong in a boardroom; that she should have to surrender her autonomy or position in any other aspect of her life. It doesn’t mean she should buy a pinny, take up baking and move to the 1950s.
There are many problems with deriding women who want to read just that kind of alphaman fantasy – and there are thousands upon thousands of them out there. Firstly; no-one has the right to make anyone feel guilty about the stuff that pushes their buttons. Secondly – and more pertinently when we think of modern romance tropes – these stifled desires simply shift to find another outlet. They go underground and emerge under different guises elsewhere in the genre. BDSM, for instance. It might be passée to swoon over a fictional representation of a man who is big and strong and won’t take no for an answer in any other context; but when that man’s a Dom? Suddenly it’s okay again. That’s how Doms are supposed to behave. Ditto gay men: because he’s not steamrollering a woman into a relationship – with all the connotations of dubious consent that brings – it makes it okay.
Except, of course, it doesn’t. Because what those readers voraciously devour (and authors produce) aren’t real representations of either BDSM or gay men. Instead they’re fantasy, written from the outside for consumption by people who are not immersed in those cultures. And that can be a dangerous thing for those on the fringes, or those looking to join those cultures for real.
I think every single gay person I know started exploring their own desires through literature. I know I certainly did; ravenously devouring anything with the merest mention of queer characters – however secondary, however convoluted. We all want to conform and part of that includes seeing representations of your own truths reflected back to you in popular culture. With the rise of digital media in the last few years, perhaps this new generation are the first that don’t need to turn to outdated and difficult-to-access books to achieve that.
What scares me when I think about it is the message that young, curious or inexperienced people are getting from the tide of BDSM and/or queer narratives that have flooded the (digital) market in recent years. There are good books out there – of course there are – great books, books that will change your life whoever you are. But for every one of them there’s a dozen; a score; a hundred bad ones. Books that teach their readers that Doms are hardly any better than abusers; that every sub is a painslut and every gay man is either a cis gendered heteronormative hunk or a simpering shrinking violet.
So what’s an author to do? Because if you do write a real representation of (some facets of) queer existence, that horrible phrase chicks with dicks will haunt you forever. It’s a statement of rejection of the feminine from the romantic landscape; a self-conscious rebuttal of the underlying truth that those readers as just as swept up in the traditional, Mills&Boon romance tropes as their mothers and grandmothers were before them. If I sneer, I can’t like it.
This does all men a disservice, because if they truly acted like traditional romance heroes are supposed to, they’d be royally fucked in the head. Your average hero makes emotional constipation look like a bad case of the trots; he is unable to handle, process or display his emotional state in any meaningful or healthy way. He mentally tortures himself for every fleeting emotion – weakness – and over-compensates by riding roughshod over the very object of his affection. His behaviour is borderline – if not downright – abusive. In real life, he’d be the subject of a number of restraining orders.
Men are wonderful creatures, but they exist under a terrible burden. Men are supposed to be certain things in order to be seen as ‘real men’ (and god, I hate that expression). None of those things, however, are healthy in excess. Men – real men – are sometimes scared; weak; helpless. Sometimes – gay or straight – they’re a bit camp, sometimes they’re fools for love, sometimes they need someone to stand up for them or support them or look after them. Really, the sexes aren’t that different after all.
Calling any representation of a male character who exhibits those traits a chick with a dick is not only ignorant, it’s damaging. It implies that he’s not actually a man (a ‘real man’), that he’s not allowed to need help, to admit weakness. Whatever he’s going through, he’s got to grit his teeth and just get on with it. And then we wonder why more men than women kill themselves. (As an aside, such stereotyping is also deeply misogynistic; conflating as it does femininity or female-ness with weakness.)
So what are we supposed to do? Personally, I’d like to see a return to realism in romance. It’s something I strive for myself, whether I’m writing contemporary, historical or fantasy. Romance where men are men, and I don’t mean that in a 1970s-so-butch-it-hurts kinda way, but men who run the full emotional gamut, who aren’t necessarily all-powerful, self-controlled, repressed dickheads. I’d also like to see readers embrace their real fantasies again: readers who don’t feel guilty or ashamed for wanting to read about those wonderful, uptight alphamen of traditional het romances.
If we kept a better distinction between the two – realism and fantasy – then audiences of both could get what they wanted and we’d all be better for it. There would be no imperative to hold real men to unattainable standards, and there would be no imperative to try and write stories about lives and cultures that as an author you’re only interested in insofar as they seem a good receptacle for your covert desires (as opposed to authors who are not part of a particular culture but wish to represent it for its own sake and do appropriate research, of course!). There would be no more chicks with dicks in either sense, because the authors who want to write about alphamen and simpering heroines would be as free as those who want to write about real life as they know it.
Will it ever happen? Probably; these trends come and go all the time. Who knows what the next big thing in romance – or any genre – will be? For me at least, the change can’t come fast enough.
Kate Aaron is the bestselling author of contemporary and fantasy gay romances.
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