And This Above All, To Thine Own Self Be True… Hamlet, Act I, Scene 3
Everybody knows that quote, right? I mean everybody knows that quote. But only a small percentage of people who know that quote (a much larger percentage if you read my blog!) know that these words are the most mischaracterized quotation in history. Polonius wasn’t advising his son (as many rebellious teenagers believe) to “be true to himself” to “just be himself” or to “follow his own star” or whatever. Polonius was telling his son to twist his backbone into a pretzel so that he didn’t alienate anybody and would thereby become a consummate liar and politician.
Context is everything.
In a recent article, a number of well known M/M authors including myself were all asked why we, as straight women, wrote M/M romance, and what did we think about claims of misogyny in this genre.
Our answers were, at best, grossly mischaracterized.
But before I get to that, I think I should talk about why I do write M/M romance, and how I do characterize women in all of my fiction, and why M/M is so appealing to me and to a lot of women. Now, what I’m about to say is going to feel like a re-tread for many of you– you’ve heard me say this in interviews and panels, and you’ve spoken to me in person or on the net, or, better yet, you’ve read my blog when I’ve been sounding off on this stuff.
So why do I write M/M.
Well, I don’t just write M/M. I started out writing urban fantasy, and I loved doing that. I loved writing romance from a female’s perspective, and even though it was menage and fantasy, I felt like I’d created a believable, flawed, interesting heroine who was easy to root for and fun to watch grow.
I still feel that way.
But while I still love that heroine–and have been looking for a way to publish another story about her– I was upset by some of the things said about her. “She’s so vulgar, swearing all the time.” But the guys swore all the time. “She’s such a bitch, going out and fighting like that.” But the guys fought for her. “How can the men stand her, giving orders all the time!” But she was the leader– Adrian and Bracken weren’t leaders. And she’s the warrior– Green wasn’t a fighter.
Oh hell. How can women still think like this about other women?
But they do.
Now, at the same time I was writing about Lady Cory, I was also writing an M/M romance into her story–in fact, several of them. Enough so that when presented with an opportunity to write M/M romance full time, I had a fantastic cast of characters screaming in my brain, all clamoring to be let out.
Now people ask me why I like M/M, and when I reply, I give the same answer I gave when I wrote my Lady Cory, with her no-bullshit swagger and her ability to take charge and her terrifying vulnerability:
Because equality is dead sexy.
It was dead sexy between Cory and Green or Cory and Adrian, and it was dead sexy between Adrian and Green.
But writing a Cory in anything but urban fantasy or fantasy is all but impossible– at least without serious critical repercussions, it is.
See, when I was teaching English, and I taught heroic archetypes, when the textbooks were talking about what made a tragic or a romantic or a Gothic or an epic hero, the writers used the words “noble birth”. I didn’t like that term– Americans don’t go for that, and the American Romantic hero often didn’t have it, so it just confused the kids anyway– so I changed the term to “social heft.”
And that term– “social heft”– makes all the difference in what kind of heroine you’re writing.
The fact is, in an urban fantasy world or a fantasy world, heroines can have equal social heft with heroes, and they can look their heroes in the eyes and be taken as dead equals in any circumstance, because the rules of the fantasy world can give them that.
The same cannot be said for the rules of the modern world. Look at rape statistics. Look at wage statistics. Listen to men talk on the street. We do not yet have the same social heft–and female heroic archetypes are, by necessity, very different because of that. (I did NOT SAY lesser– just different– and that’s another article.)
Does that mean I’m not in an equal partnership myself?
But I’m in an unusual one– I know that for certain. The other day I listened to two women talk about how one woman’s daughter-in-law didn’t pack a lunch for her son, because she was lazy, and how she agreed she needed to give up her job or work less hours to care for her children and her husband.
Yes. That still happens.
Now, when my husband made much more money than I did, it made sense for me to do that. We both agreed. It only made sense. But now that we’re equal wage earners? He doesn’t let me freak out about the house. He spends as much time caring for the children as I do. Why? Because we both agree that we’re equals– not just as wage earners, but as life-partners. If I ever make enough money for him to quit his job or take fewer hours to take care of the kids, we’re both all over that.
Now imagine if I tried to write that female character into a romance. Or that male character. Selling that partnership to an agent or a publisher would probably get me kicked out of the romance department and right into literary fiction–but that’s not what I want to write!
The fact that these partnerships exist in real life does not make them literarily acceptable. Listen to women talk about their partners, and look at divorce stats for women making more money.
Social heft matters in a partnership based in equality–and Mate and I are the exception more than the rule.
So back to misogyny and M/M romance. I write flawed female characters. I write women with questionable pasts and promiscuous sexual histories. I write women who have done their best with their children but it hasn’t been good enough, and women who haven’t been able to overcome the prejudices of the past to embrace their children. I also write strong women, and kind women and women who are good mothers and women who are good mothers to their own children but not so nice to their children’s partners and women who have gotten abortions and women who have kept the children of their abusers and…
Women very much like the men I write, actually.
Because when I’m writing the male partnership, nobody ever questions that I’m writing two people with equal social heft. In fact, even when social situation and education makes that impossible, the world insists that it should be, because hey, they’re both men. And given that equality, and the fact that my men are flawed, I am given license to write women who are flawed, and this makes me happy. I can write real live people. Or at least people who are real to me.
Now I still get flack, and much of it is almost amusing. I frequently talk about a book in which two female characters make exactly the same mistakes as one of the male MC’s–but they are criticized for being weak and I am criticized for writing weak women.
I don’t have the time or emotional reserves to reply to every one of those reviews with the response that I wrote equally flawed human beings– but it was the reviewer’s choice to vilify the women and adulate the man. But it’s true.
So how do I write women– how do I feel about women in M/M romance?
The same way I feel and write about the men.
We are all flawed, fucked up walking disasters– male, female, gay, straight, bi, trans, or gender fluid. We all hurt people on accident and sometimes on purpose and we all crave human connection and we all try so very hard to find redemption and purpose in those human connections and in that ephemeral, amorphous concept of love.
So back to being grossly mischaracterized in an article about misogyny– some pundit (who probably thought he was being clever) said (and I paraphrase) “Words will tell–taken out of context or not.”
Well, A. Context is everything, and B.?
These are my words. If you’re going to attack me, my genre, and my characterization of gay men or straight women or anybody else I create in my own fictional worlds, these are the words I will stand by.
Everything else is hearsay, and I will ignore it.
(And I’d like to thank all of the people who spoke up on FB and other places– I was almost embarrassed to publish this post because it felt like the people who mattered had already said, unequivocally and without reservation, that my fiction and online presence had essentially refuted everything about the original article that spawned this. But, well, I’d already written it by then. And it was a very pretty post 😉