A well-written story can make me enjoy (almost) anything. Still, like every reader, I have certain things I tend to particularly love in my m/m romance reading. I don’t mean specific themes or tropes, but general, underlying factors in the way the characters are portrayed and the dynamics of the relationship.
I’m going to talk about this in several entries, because there is a lot to say. Today, as the first installment: Equality!
Please note: These are my personal preferences only, and I in no way intend to set them up as rules, or indicators of literary quality, or anything of the kind. Tastes differ; other readers and writers have other preferences, which is exactly as it should be. The world would be a sad and boring place if everyone liked the same things.
So if you have different preferences (or if you share mine), tell me! I love to talk about these things.
I am not a fan of hierarchical relationships or other types of power imbalances in romantic relationships (I do love power reversals, though, provided the end result is a balance of some kind).
An Advantage of Same-Gender Romance
For me, one of the great things about m/m romance is that there is no inescapable social inequality tied into the main characters’ genders. Unfortunately, I am unaware of any existing society that has true gender equality, meaning that there are always a stack of societal expectations, pressures and gender roles involved in a relationship between a man and a woman. Regardless of whether the characters buy into them or not, they are still always present.
Unlike a heterosexual couple, two men – or two women – start out on an equal footing in the eyes of society and each other. Any existing power imbalances or assumed roles cannot be based in gender.
(Heterosexual romance frequently handles this very well, by the way, negating the power imbalance in the case of the particular couple in question – or even reversing it and making the woman the more powerful partner. But in a homosexual romance, this kind of equality is the default, and I find that an advantage.)
Gender isn’t the only arena where I like the lovers to hold equal power within the relationship. I often have a hard time with romances between a superior and a subordinate, or a professor and a student, because of the direct dependency inherent in this kind of relationship.
This doesn’t mean that I don’t want there to be any differences in social status, age, fortune, what have you – but in the relationship itself, I prefer a level playing field.
If there are large differences in status outside the relationship, I need there to be some kind of equalizing factor. For example, you could say that there are large status differences between Pat and Nick in “Love for the Cold-Blooded” – Pat is a university student, and Nick is a famous billionaire genius superhero. The thing is, though, that Pat is completely and genuinely unimpressed by Nick’s fame, money and status, and makes this entirely clear from the get-go. In their interactions, Nick is the one who’s left scrambling to find and keep his feet.
So, what do you think?
03/08/2015 at 02:53
I guess I don’t have a preference one way or the other, whether the love birds start out relatively on equal footing or not. But if they aren’t equal, I don’t want those differences hand-waved away. Having the leads come from difference places means that they may want different things out of the relationship, or have certain problems that add a little tension to the story as it puts the “happy ending” in greater peril than having two leads who have no problems getting together. I prefer to read about characters who are somewhat self aware, and find it romantic when the couples engage in couple talk – discuss what their shared future would be like, imagine what it would be like living with someone for the rest of their lives. Not acknowledging those differences, even if only subtly, makes me think that the characters are a little delusional about their situation and I that just won’t cut it with me for long.
A hypothetical worst story: “I am the heir to the largest steel conglomerate in Asia and my boyfriend is the son of an unemployed miner from Wales. No…our differences have never come up? Why do you ask?” Star-crossed lovers who don’t even know their stars are crossed. Ugh.
03/08/2015 at 03:28
You bring up a very interesting point, Peale! I also think that it’s a great source of narrative tension and interest to have the characters come from very different places, with accordingly different expectations and approaches to the relationship. That is indeed an extremely rewarding dynamic to explore… as long as the characters do explore it.
Very different backgrounds (with large differences in status/wealth/social position) can work extremely well for me if the characters are handled in a way that balances their power within the relationship. Like – say the unemployed miner is outgoing, popular, charismatic and self-assured, and in the middle of founding a union of miners to overthrow the reigning social order and bring justice to the workers. Meanwhile the steel heir is aimless and unmotivated, drifting from meaningless party to soul-sucking soiree, insecure and desperately eager to be seen and liked for himself. I could see the balance of power in this relationship being very equal, or even having the miner be in the stronger position emotionally, to balance the fact that the heir is in the stronger position financially and socially.
You know, now I really want to read that story. 😉
I love it when characters are different (but equal), and I love tension in the relationship, and huge obstacles to overcome – both external and internal obstacles, such as the characters’ own expectations and hang-ups. I love it when the stakes are high, because the higher the stakes and the more difficult the obstacles, the more I as the reader believe in the depth of the characters’ attachment. There’s nothing that shows the strength of a relationship better than overcoming the odds.
03/08/2015 at 06:09
Drive-by comment – I want to read that story too!
03/08/2015 at 11:39
03/08/2015 at 16:59
So Jun-seo and Rhys could be an item. I wish them well.
I see what you mean by equality = balance, since you created the Welsh character into a super proletariat in order to match him with the super capitalist. (Maybe they meet during a TED talk or at Davos?)
I agree with the ideal in general, though. It’s not possible to eliminate all social and economic differences between the characters, but not addressing them by the end might leave us to feel a little squicky about supporting the relationship. Like in the case of class, the poorer character can be accused of gold digging and the richer one of just trying to buy someone with gifts that the other can never reciprocate, which would make the whole ship appear more similar to prostitution than love. I don’t think I’d enjoy a novel that ended there.
I wonder how much of that is due to the idea we have that modern love is supposed to be a co-equal partnership or at least a complementary pairing and how much of that desire stems from masculine gender ideals that just won’t brook supporting a male character in a submissive role within the relationship. Equality in a sense solves the gender problem that two males might face following cultural norms whereby it is o.k. to be independent and dominant, but still not o.k. to be dependent or taking on too many attributes of a traditional female role in a relationship.
Sorry. Don’t mean to jack the thread.
04/08/2015 at 14:47
Hmm, how they meet is a good question – if the miner is Welsh and the heir Korean, that is indeed a bit of a challenge. But the heir’s father can always send him to a remote corner of the steel kingdom to finally get his head into the business, and maybe to get him away from some scandal or other (nobody cares if rich partyboys sleep with models, but did it have to be male ones? honestly) . And in the UK, Jun-seo honestly tries to be the heir his father always wanted, but there’s this pesky union business and when he goes “undercover” to see for himself what is going on, things really get off track…
I think that in the majority of cases, eliminating all social and economic differences between the characters will make for a pretty boring story. Perfect sameness is not something I actually want in a story at all.
On reflection, I think that the terms dominance and dependency that you mention are really more accurate to describe the problem I have with “unequal” relationships. In my eyes, social and economic differences between the lovers only add spice if they are balanced in some way – what I really don’t want to see is a hierarchical relationship, with one partner being more powerful within the relationship.
As for where the wish for that kind of power balance in the relationship comes from – good question. I suspect this is different for every reader, particularly because I know some readers enjoy a power imbalance. For me, I would say it’s definitely the ideal of a modern partnership as being a bond between equals, with neither partner being submissive.
For me, it’s not a problem with seeing specifically men being submissive; I have exactly the same problems with heterosexual romantic pairings, if the woman is the submissive partner. Or rather, I have an even larger problem with this, because the stereotypical roles involved enrage me so. I can actually enjoy a m/f romantic pairing where the woman holds a bit more power, because for me, that is balanced out by millennia of oppression and patriarchal social roles and expectations. (I know this is an odd segue, but this is why I loved Spike and Buffy, back in the day. *g*)
And you’re not jacking the thread at all! I really do love talking about this kind of thing. 🙂 You’re making me think about and realize many interesting things!
04/08/2015 at 20:17
Yeah. I guess I might select out the “unequal” romance stories when I choose stories to read or bucket them into some other category since I haven’t read many of them. I guess I remember reading a story once about a slave colony on another planet in which a prisoner turned slave and his master fell in love, kind of, but I wasn’t really convinced by the ending since the slave could only be free within the household and needed to pretend to be a slave outside. I never emotionally connected to the story. That other ideal of modern romantic love – that it comes about as a free choice between both parties – seemed to still be absent despite the author’s insistence that the slave kid was amenable to the situation. I associate this more with a certain type of yaoi where the seme seems to exist to ground the uke into submission and doesn’t seem affected by the uke’s pleas for him to lay off a bit. I think I understand why people find those stories compelling, and as extreme metaphors for people’s experiences of sexist social institutions they work just fine. I just can’t be inspired to find them romantic.
Undercover Jun-seo…we now have a thriller! i like the idea that Jun-seo is trying to live up to being a good heir after being chastened in exile. It seems that Rhys is coming from the same place – with his talent, he probably could have left that town in Wales, headed off to University and worked his way up in London and no one would have blamed him for that. At the very least, he probably would have found it easier being a young gay man in the City than in his small town. The fathers loom large now in this little romance and both leads are coming from a similar place vis-a-vis their families. But their families are going to want much different things. The sex will probably be great, but falling in love will be so much harder and potentially emotionally destructive. LOL.
Anyway, as a coincidence, my WP feed pointed me today to this request (http://thegrandnarrative.com/2015/08/04/korean-western-couples/) for Korean-western couples to take part in a study. Which pointed me to this article about the problems of romantic love and dating in Beijing, https://www.academia.edu/3763094/Individualisation_as_an_Ambition_Mapping_the_Dating_Landscape_in_Beijing. I found it interesting they way the idea of romantic love entered into freely is twarted by socio-economic inequalities and permits to reside in the city legally which create an interesting hierarchy of desirability. Love that crosses boundaries is just so difficult to achieve, which I guess is why we have romance novels where it happens all the time. That’s probably a different topic, though…how much social realism do you want brought in your m/m romance stories.