he makes me feel so feminine

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.

Comments 10 Responses

    1. anna cowan Post author

      It’s not the readers she’s not crediting (she loved it!) – it’s the gatekeepers, the market, the publishing houses and marketers. And like I said, I’ve had lots of conversations this past week that confirmed what she said. It’s just too risky – especially for a newbie author.

      Lucky for me, I’ve found some publishers who are in a position to take a risk on it – but more on that later! 😉

        1. anna cowan Post author

          LOL that makes sense. I just assume everyone knows of her, because she’s a Ubiquitous Romance International SuperStar (lame kpop joke). As well as writing excellent romances she’s a beta-reader extraordinaire, and she read my book.

  1. Liz Mc2

    There are romance readers up for anything, but I think the majority of readers prefer more traditional roles. Look at the popularity of alpha heroes. Men in romance fiction, particularly, tend to perform extreme versions of masculinity.

    In a way I understand this. It can be fun to perform those traditional gender roles in romantic and sexual relationships, and our culture is telling us in all kinds of ways that those roles (and body tyoes) are romantic and sexy. I know I’m not immune to the pleasures of feeling dainty and helpless and soft sometimes. But I do get tired of the relentless drumbeat of traditional notions of masculinity and femininity in the genre. I’m grateful for writers who are playing with that.

    Thanks, this is fascinating!

    1. anna cowan Post author

      I think you’re right. (How clever you are! 🙂 ) its so deeply wired in us that is inextricable from sex and pleasure for most of us. What I want from those hetero-normative pairings isn’t for them to be differently gendered, but for there to be a clear exploration or statement of what feminine/masculine means inside that narrative, rather than just defaulting to the most traditional sense.

      But yes, I am probably WAY overcomplicating a basic, learned thing.

      Cara McKenna does what I’m talking about really well. Her characters are aware of the ways they’re objectifying themselves, their partners and their circumstances because it heightens their pleasure. It’s a fascinating, powerful approach.

  2. bleuet

    “Lucky for me, I’ve found some publishers who are in a position to take a risk on it – but more on that later! 😉 ” How much later? I want to know *now*!
    Will you tell us lots about what they expect from your book and the like? Pleaaaase?!
    Sorry, I don’t mean to annoy you… but it sounds like awesome news and I am dying of curiousity!

    On this post: I think you are right about how – Wait a second. Have we ever learned his new name? I just remember you looking for another one… If we have, I am sorry I forgot.
    Anyway, it’s probably true, that *his* femininity is more of a problem than the Cross Dressing. The Cross Dressing is a form of expression of this femininity after all.
    But apart from the fact that I really want to read it, I think feminine men have more of a chance of being accepted than masculine women.
    Thinking of the few more popular films with tomboyish girls in them, the final line always seems to be that they find their ‘inner girl’ with help from some incredily masculine guy.
    I can imagine that a man’s feminine side would be more readily accepted and left alone by their partner, than a woman’s masculine side.
    Maybe that is a misconception, but to me it seems that way.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      I promise to tell all the news soon!

      I think you’re right, and boyish women are often revealed to be beautiful swans right at the end (and it’s kind of funny that I used the Ugly Duckling, because apparently that was a homosexual allegory).

      My heroine is pretty manly, and she stays that way. Will be interested to see what you think! There’s something about the hero being more feminine that allows her to occupy the masculine space.

      It’s interesting to me, when I get feedback that someone absolutely loved my book, except for the cross-dressing/bi-sexual hero elements, I wonder whether they get that’s what makes him amazing.

      Oh, and he’s called Jude :-).

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