So there’s been a lot of nonsense doing the rounds about women in m/m. Aren’t we bored of this yet? I’m not addressing the issue again, suffice it to say the day I stop being allowed to write about men is the day men stop being allowed to write about women, or aliens, or animals, or, y’know, anything except other men.
What I do want to talk about is an equally tired old argument I see bandied around time and again, that women like to write two men together because the relationship between two men is more equal than it is between a man and a woman.
Now, my argument isn’t even going to touch the fact that if you’re sick of seeing downtrodden and suppressed women then the best recourse would be to write women who break that stereotype, rather than silencing female voices completely. If that’s your reason for switching to writing (exclusively) about men, then you’re part of the problem. You’re rendering strong women invisible, you’re implicitly endorsing the view that women are lesser, and you’re guaranteeing that the only women with any visibility are the fragile, passive creatures you claim to so disdain.
But let’s talk about equality, shall we. I sometimes wonder if I’m living in the twenty-first century or the twelfth, judging by the way women view their place in the world. Now I’m not for a moment suggesting women don’t get a shitty deal, but let’s look at what we’ve accomplished, ladies. We’ve come a long way. It’s not unheard of for women to be the breadwinners of their families; to put their careers before marriage and children; to support their husbands, or decide they don’t even want or need a husband at all. Women are at the forefront of every field of industry, every science and scholarly pursuit. Women hold positions of power across the globe, and in their own homes.
Are we under-represented at the highest levels? Yes. Is the world perfect? Hell, no. But to say that women can’t attain those positions or command respect because: Society! is short-sighted and defeatist.
Then we come to matters romantical, and here we find ourselves at the crux when it comes to writing male and female characters: sex. More specifically, the power dynamics of being the active or passive partner. For the longest time, female = passive = weak.
“Why do people say “grow some balls”? Balls are weak and sensitive. If you wanna be tough, grow a vagina. Those things can take a pounding.” — Sheng Wang
I imagine the argument runs something like: ‘two men are both ‘active’ and active = strong, therefore they are both strong, therefore they are equal’. Except m/m virtually always depicts penetrative sex at some point, rendering at least one of the men passive according to that model. Which, if we follow that logic, immediately calls the idea of equality between them into question. It also leads to a number of tired tropes, such as the bigger top / smaller bottom dichotomy, which is simply (IMO) a poor man’s het romance. Attempts to rectify that, by having a bigger bottom and smaller top, often appear as tired and as trite as they very stereotype they’re trying to subvert. (Probably because they’re still caught in the heteronormative male/female paradigm of sex, but that’s a post for another time. Suffice it to say, there are switches in the world, people!)
The fact is, we’re caught in the thinking that women are small and weak and passive, and men are big and strong and active. Trying to mix that up isn’t always easy. But real men and women don’t always conform to those stereotypes anyway. There are plenty of domineering bottoms out there, plenty of passive tops, plenty of large, powerful women, and small, delicate men. There is always an element of power dynamic in sex, but who wields it and who yields is never set in stone. There are plenty of stereotypes which hint at that, as well: from the browbeaten husband and domineering wife, to the seductive temptress.
Moving away from sex, however, I don’t buy that any two given men are equal outside the bedroom, either. This seems to me a very reductive view which equates maleness with (social) superiority and femaleness with inferiority, as though we lived in a two-tiered world. We don’t. We never did.
There are a hundred thousand different ways we distinguish who is the superior when any two people meet. We do this all the time, with everybody we meet, subconsciously or not. Who earns more; who’s better educated; if you’ve got the same degree, who got theirs from the better university. What’s your job title, how many subordinates do you have, how long until your next promotion. How many cars do you own, what make and model and year are they. What sports do you play, what clubs do you belong to. How big is your house, what area is it in, do you have a cleaner or a gardener. How many children do you have, how are they doing in school/university/work. Who are you friends with, what are your relatives doing, where and when did you last go on holiday. The list goes on. With every question and answer there’s a subtle judgement being made. Human beings wouldn’t know equality if it slapped them in the face, because we reject it on every level. We want to be better, we want to be superior. Male and female, active and passive, play but the smallest part in that dance.
Simply putting two men together and saying they’re equal by default is ludicrous.
Now, that’s not to detract from the advantages that men categorically do have, although often I suspect when male privilege is discussed as a bonus when writing m/m, the social stigma of homosexuality is underplayed. It’s straight men who benefit the most from the men=superior mode of thinking.
Let’s also not detract from the fact that two men have a different romantic dynamic than a man and a woman do. But let’s make the point clear: they’re not equal. Exploring their inequalities is one of the reasons I love writing men, but the same could be said by authors of heterosexual romances about both men and women. No two people are ever equal, and any couple entering into a relationship have a whole minefield ahead of them to navigate.
One of the great joys of reading and/or writing romance is seeing two individuals negotiate their differences in order to create a balance of equality between them. It’s deciding that it doesn’t matter if one person is career-orientated and the other is a homebody; that one inherited a ton of money, or is more intelligent/educated and has higher earning potential. Partner A might be the boss in the boardroom, but Partner B might rule the roost at home. The point is to find a working dynamic, and equality plays but a small part in that.
There should be equality when it comes to the weight each attaches to the other’s opinions and desires relative to their own, but they don’t need the same job title and salary to make that happen. Love — real, lasting love — is compromise. It’s finding the middle ground which makes both partners happy. Just because one partner is financially supported by the other doesn’t make them unequal unless the partners themselves believe it does. And if you’re in a relationship with someone who throws money or status or education in your face, they’re probably a shitty person to be dating anyway.
Like I said, I love writing men. Men specifically, because they are different to women. There’s a whole other dynamic between two men that I love exploring. I won’t deny or apologise for that, but I won’t claim I prefer writing men because they’re more equal, because it’s simply not true. And not only is it fundamentally wrong, but I think it’s damaging to women. Ladies, we can piss and moan about our lot in life, put our heads in the sand, and (intentionally or not) state that being a man is somehow better, or we can grab life by the balls and take what we’re due.
Inequality exists unless we work to make things otherwise. By writing, and writing romance in particular, we can show the world what real equality looks like. Let’s do it.