When I started reading romance novels in earnest, about four years ago, I was drawn to the powerful heterosexual narrative. Actually, it’s more than that, isn’t it? It’s a really traditional sort of hetero-sex.
A big, hard man and a soft, curvy woman having sex – and reaffirming their genders by having sex.
Growing up, I never felt like a typical girl. (I’m assuming no girl does.) I let my body hair grow, because I didn’t see why I should waste all that effort shaving, when it was a losing battle. I wore some crazy outfits that were much more, er, aesthetically interesting than either feminine or sexy.
I did a Bachelor of Arts in my mid-twenties that further taught me to question everything. Turn any given dichotomy around. Subvert it.
I never felt entirely comfortable with straight-up hetero sexuality. The dominant paradigm always had to be confronted, questioned, investigated.
So there was something amazing about discovering romance, and letting myself read romance, and indulging in a simple man/woman relationship. It gave me permission to be a woman to my husband’s man in a way I hadn’t let myself before. I still think that was an important time for me, because there was a kind of guilt associated with “giving in” to traditional gender roles. To just being a woman as society constructs a woman. And that should, obviously, not be a guilty thing.
But I’ve come through the other end of it, and I’m back to questioning traditional gendering. (As you may have noticed.)
Now, the very thing that made me feel so comforted makes me pause. There’s one line in particular that I have read hundreds of times. When a man and woman have sex in a romance novel, the hero makes the heroine feel some variation of “soft and feminine”, because of how hard and different he is.
In that moment the hero and heroine reaffirm themselves as gendered.
I understand why the traditional gender roles are sexy – and hey, I might question it, but I mostly find it sexy too. We’re constructed that way our whole lives long, and our libidos are wired into it no matter what our rational minds might have to say on the subject.
But I can’t help wishing it wasn’t just the traditional genders being reaffirmed. “She felt so feminine,” is a hell of an ambiguous phrase. And just to prove that Arts degree wasn’t wasted, let me ask: What is feminine, anyway?
If the line goes unquestioned, “feminine” represents an amorphous thing that can be described by words like soft and rounded and gentle and giving. The default, traditional idea of feminine.
I gotta say, when I get ambushed by moments of feeling that sort of feminine it’s surprising and makes me feel a bit awkward and bashful and grateful. It’s an alien feeling – not something I experience myself as in a lived way.
Of course, romance is a kick-arse genre and many authors are exploring the different kinds of gendered relationships in their novels. Cecilia Grant comes to mind immediately, and I wish I had the book at hand so that I could quote it. In the climactic scene of A Gentleman Undone, when the hero is all tender and, well, undone, the heroine is a cold, implacable thing. Like a bird of prey. Something strong enough for him to break against.
I think this is part of why I love reading gay romance. Two gay men are allowed much more room to redefine their gender than a straight man and woman are allowed.
I recently asked Ruthie Knox whether she thought My Lady Untamed would have a chance in New York. I found her reply very interesting: “Definitely, the quality of your writing is there, but the hero is unusual enough (and here I’m thinking less of the cross-dressing than the gender dynamic of strong heroine, weaker hero) that it’s really hard to say.”
I’ve always known the cross-dressing would be a barrier, but it hadn’t even occurred to me that the gender dynamic could be more problematic. And even though this stuff is highly subjective, the many conversations I’ve had with industry professionals in the past week suggest that Ruthie’s comment was spot-on. (So not surprising.)
My problem is, I’m becoming more and more interested in the idea of androgyny. My KPop habit really isn’t helping, either. I mean, look at this guy:
I find G-Dragon’s androgyny incredible. It’s physically attractive, but it also seduces my intellect. There’s something about a man who is strongly, fully himself – and embraces a fluid aesthetic. He’s masculine, he’s feminine, he’s a man.
If my heroes are headed in this direction, I really don’t know what readers are going to make of it.