Thursday, 19 January 2012

In Defense of Women

I love women.

Okay, I'm bi, so I love love women, if you get my drift. But I also just love women. I love the women who have influenced and raised and nurtured me. I love the women who make up my circle of friends. I love my mother and my sister and my daughter. I love my co-author. I love my woman colleagues, my woman readers, my woman editors. I love disenfranchised women and powerful women and trans women and genderfluid and genderqueer people who honour womanhood by occasionally or frequently presenting or identifying as women. I love queer women and I love asexual women and I love straight women. I love being a woman, even if I don't always love the way I'm treated or represented because of it. I love the experience of womanhood. I'm a big Feminist with a capital F, and there's no "but" dangling on the end of that, either. I own and celebrate my womanhood, while simultaneously respecting (and empathizing with) the right of women to wish they weren't women sometimes, or to use male or gender-neutral pen names to get by in the world.

I love fiction by and for women, and I love romance. In particular I love M/M romance and I love that women make up a big important part of the genre. Is there validity in complaints that M/M by women can be objectifying and hurtful? Yes, absolutely, and that's a conversation we should never stop having, and an issue we should always be mindful of. But let's be honest: when a man makes a "lesbian" porn for men to watch, how many lesbian women does he consult? How many lesbians are involved in the process of creating it? How many lesbians are valued members of that community? M/M has its flaws, but ultimately it's a place that enshrines, values, and welcomes male (and especially gay mens') voices. Personally, I'm absolutely tickled pink if a gay man says "well done" and validates my efforts. That's a measure of respect that says this is something that can be more than bald-faced appropriation.

As a reader and writer in this genre, I read fiction by women and men, and I think I'm pretty representative from that standpoint. M/M stories are nominally about men, but they're also, in their way, about women. About women giving themselves permission to express their sexual desires, their fantasies, their curiosity, and their fetishes. And you know what, that's valid, as long as it's done with respect and due diligence.

Sometimes gay men are used as avatars to express these things in a way that's safe for themselves as women, the same way "bodice-rippers" once allowed women to have female characters expressing their sexuality without appearing "promiscuous". Both of those reasons have problematic aspects, but they're a product of a sexist culture that women are doing their best to navigate. Sometimes authors write gay men because they like the unique narratives and characterization gay men provide, like exploring stories of coming out and brotherhood and masculinity. And that's just two of a million possible explanations or reasons, some good and some troublesome. We're a varied group, so being reductive and saying all women do X for Y reasons is inaccurate at best and offensive at worst.

The reality is, women's fiction has been historically maligned, which is why you're a hundred times more likely to find someone critical of Harlequin category romance vs. Westerns, even though the genres suffer from the same pitfalls. Not that people don't critique literature aimed at men, but there are other things happening when books by and for women are criticized. There's a reason why women in many genres, all throughout history, have adopted male or gender-neutral pseudonyms, and authors in general have tried to disavow themselves of female readers. Why novels and fiction in general were once considered a trash pastime for weak-minded women. Those same issues are at play when female authors and readers of M/M are blanket condemned. That's an entire other blog post, (indeed a whole academic thesis, really) but the following video might illuminate the issue:

The point is, sometimes women are good at portraying gay men and sometimes they aren't. This is an issue of characterization, not gender essentialism. There's nothing inherent to womanhood that says "you don't understand men and never will and you can't write them well no matter how hard you try". If there was, there wouldn't be so many woman authors writing convincingly under male pseudonyms and "getting away with it", as it were. Characterization either works or it doesn't, and that's not an issue of gender -- of the characters or the author. It's an issue of the skill and empathy of the author. There is a difference between men and women: the way we're socialized, the way we're treated, the way we're raised and taught to behave and express ourselves, but that isn't a black and white rule, as any person who defies the expectations of their gender can tell you.

I'm a woman author and I write gay (and bi, and questioning) men. Maybe I do a good job or maybe I don't. I hope I do a good job. I try really hard to do a good job. But if I don't do a good job, it's not because of what I call myself and it's definitely not because of the genitals between my legs (which don't have anything to do with my gender in the first place!). And if I do do a good job, man or woman, you can rest assured it's because I tried my best and have a bit of talent and a good damn editor. Which you can say for anyone writing anything.

So tell me, what are some of your favourite male characters written by women? How about your favourite female characters written by men? In M/M or any other genre you please. I'd love to hear it! And this is a celebratory post, so let's keep this positive, please. We all know there are bad authors and bad characters out there, but let's talk about what's good!


  1. Hi Heidi! Thanks for this post, it's fantastic and I couldn't have put it better myself. I don't believe it matters what gender an author is as long as the writing is done well. Being a new author can be daunting as it is without having to defend why you do what you do. I'm a new author myself, and if I love what I do and (hopefully) do it well, what should it matter if I've got boobs or not?

    Despite how far society has come, as you stated, it wasn't all that long ago that women didn't have any rights, and sadly, it's still the case in many places today. My first job with a big company opened my eyes to a lot of things. One was how different women were treated from men, to the point where one of my male friends was earning more than me, having started later and being in the same position. I did a little digging and discovered that ALL the male employees were being paid higher wages than the female employees, regardless of how long they'd been there or their performance levels. When I took it to the manager, it was quickly 'rectified' and we were lectured about confidentiality. This was just over ten years ago in a big city.

    When I read, I get emotionally involved in the characters and the stories. That leads me to buying more books by that author. I don't look up whether they're a man or a woman or a three armed Martian.

    Jordan Castillo Price is one of my favorite female M/M authors and her male characters are incredibly well written and engaging. Marie Sexton, Heidi Cullinan, Tamara Allen, Sloan Parker, the list goes on. This is a growing genre and I think that's a good thing. Yes, there will be hiccups along the way, but it's all part of the learning process. Writing, like any other art form, grows and evolves, as should our way of thinking. Isn't that one of the reasons why many authors write M/M Romance? To show that love is love no matter the gender?

    1. Thanks very much for your kind words :)

      I totally understand where you're coming from re: payment of women. I come from a community where it's documented that women make an average of THIRTY percent of what men make. Of course, women and men in our community work in largely different sectors, but much of that is due to the fact that women have a hard time getting jobs in the male-dominated field, and if they do are treated poorly, not to mention the overall culture that encourages women to take other less lucrative work. Sexism in industry is alive and well.

      Personally, if I was a man, I'd find it offensive if someone attributed my ability to write good male characters entirely to my sex! I'd like to think those men who write awesome characters like say Aleksandr Voinov (who coincidentally writes wonderful female characters, as well) do so because they're talented and savvy, not because of their gender.

      And yes, I agree :) M/M like any other genre has issues to be hashed out, but I love being here and writing here and reading here, so I hope it continues to get better.

  2. Very astute and thoughtful post. Thanks!

  3. Yup. Gay man here. Was married once to a woman, though. First, terrific post. I've written gay, straight, and bi men, but I've never written lesbian characters. I agree that the key elements in effectively portraying any character are skill and empathy. Could a woman, in a completely foreign culture just to add to the complexity, be more effectively portayed than Chiyo in Memoirs of a Geisha? For emotionally effective M/M characters, does it get better than Jack Twist and Ennis DelMar? Both written by persons of the opposite sex from their characters. If the characters are true and their emotions are empathetically portrayed, human is human. Sure, men and women have different world experiences because of the world we live in, and we experience physical sexuality differently. In some ways, we are writing from the outside in. I can never know, really, what a woman's orgasm feels like, though I've experience a few from the outside. And I don't think a woman, however observant, can know what a man's orgasm feels like. But so what? What we experience aside from sexual encounter, or even engaged in it, is far more that physical sensation. That's where the skill and empathy come in. I've read some very good (and very hot) M/M fiction by women. IMO, where most people go wrong is in concentrating on the physical, which almost always leads to silly and distracting euphemisms. But you weren't talking about just sex. And the best erotic writing, to me, anyway, is more about the emotional sensations, if that makes sense, the desire, the tease, the tension, the release, the fear, the fun, the disappointment, the satisfaction--all those shared human things that both sexes experience, not just in sex but in all aspects of relationships. I think it's interesting that so much more M/M fiction is written by women than by men, but fine. It is. Easy to see that straight guys might not want to write about gay guys lest it be thought... And, in my experience, men have always had a fascination for women getting it on together. Interesting that homosexuality should be of such interest to members of the opposite sex. But such seems to be the case. Don't know why, really, and don't really care. As long as whoever writes about whichever sex does it well, with skill and empathy.