Women in M/M Romances – Are Negative Portrayals The Way To Go?

thequeen-171x300Recently I read an M/M book that led me to comment in my review about what I perceived as a very negative portrayal of the female characters. Both the story and the protagonists were well done and I quite enjoyed the book except for this one black eye. To my surprise a few bloggers defended the portrayals in the book and indicated that these were true to life depictions of the women in this case.

Shortly after, Sean Kennedy commented on the same post and  expressed somewhat similar views to mine (quelle surprise):) and then the lovely and delightful Jenre came along  to add her two cents worth. Obviously neither was busy on that day – how else would they have had the time to visit? *g* So I asked them if we could do a joint post about this topic and they agreed, which is why you have the pleasure today of reading what we really think about the characterizations of women in M/M books, and whether there is even a need for them in a gay man’s world. I invite your comments and look forward to a lively, spirited debate on this very touchy subject.

Next week it’s the men’s turn. Kidding!!! *g*

Sean Kennedy

Disclaimer: I am not an anthropologist or sociologist.  I just hold a lowly Arts degree, in search of a career that does not involve fast food, like so many of you.

But I am opinionated.  That qualifies me for a lot, surely?

 I was raised by strong, opinionated women.  I always made friends with strong, opinionated women.  I am drawn to strong, opinionated women in music, movies and books.  So when it comes to the fiction I write, I like to have strong female characters within it.  Sometimes this can be difficult, as I write primarily in the m/m genre.  Like any other genre, it has its own limitations.  One area I think it often fails is in the depiction of women.
The interesting thing about m/m fiction is that it deals with characters who are marginalised by mainstream society.  But within the genre they become our primary focus, and we can pretty much guarantee they are always going to be depicted in a positive light.  But what this also means is that women can then become the marginalised characters and then get slotted into certain stereotypes: the fag hag, the spurned woman who aims to get in between our heroes for her own nefarious purposes, the homophobe, etc etc. 

These types of characters get played out over and over again, and it can all get a bit tiring when you consume a lot of these books (as we tend to do). And I really don’t get it.  Women are fantastic!  When I wrote “Tigers and Devils” I really wanted to show that.  I wanted the supporting characters to be strong and well-rounded, and that it not be some sort of Gaytopia where the lead characters are surrounded by an “everybody’s gay!” environment.  Because that’s not the world we live in.  There is no Gaytopia – or if there is, they’re keeping it a secret from me.

 Even if there was, I wouldn’t want to live there.  I like diversity.  I like my straight friends.  And I love my strong, opinionated, shrewd, honest and loving women.

So do female characters in m/m fiction need to be afforded certain protections?  I think so, especially if there are only a couple in the story and they are portrayed negatively.  I want women in my fiction, even in the m/m romance genre, to reflect the women that I know.  I am not saying we can’t have female villains at all – but there needs to be more shades of grey.
 

 Wave

From my perspective it doesn’t matter if there are few or no women in M/M romances because I read the genre for the men, not for the women, regardless of their roles in the books. But if authors decide to write female characters who interact with the protagonists, why bother if all you’re going to do is denigrate them? Do authors feel that they need women in M/M books because female readers would be uncomfortable reading about gay men in romantic relationships, having sex, (lots of sex) unless there was a woman in the book or actually in the mix?

 
If you are going to have females in these stories there is no need to demonize them and portray them as the bitches from hell, or that other character some authors love – the slut who would open her legs 24/7  to any man. In some cases these portrayals might be true to life e.g. the “barracks bunnies” and “buckle bunnies,” etc. but do we need to read about them in M/M stories? Are you not perpetuating old stereotypes about women which have very little validity if you consider the gender as a whole? I know authors like to feel that their characters are edgy, but in M/M romances this seems to be taken to extremes at times in terms of the women in the books.

 As I indicated above, I read M/M books strictly for the men and their relationships, but perhaps authors should consider how they would feel if their sisters or mothers were characterized the way females in M/M books are portrayed. I’m not saying that female characters should always be described positively, but authors might want to give some thought to developing three dimensional people (with all their flaws and positive attributes) and add balance to the characters. It’s reasonable to expect that not all portrayals of females in M/M romances will be positive, but couldn’t we have some balance?  Are all the women in your lives tramps or bitches? Why do female M/M writers feel that it is OK to portray their gender in such a negative and harmful way? 

On the other hand, I have read a few delightful M/M books where the female characters are well drawn, funny, fully actualized women that anyone would be proud to know and I wish we had more of them.

To end my segment on a positive note, enclosed is a copy of a post I saved from exactly a year ago in Overthinking It, about why strong female characters are bad for women.:) Of course this is tongue in cheek, but maybe M/M writers have been taking lessons from characters in the movies.

Jenre

I think my views fall a little between Wave and Sean’s.  Like Wave, I read m/m mostly for the male characters and many of my favourite m/m books contain no secondary female character.  However, like Sean, I agree that if an m/m book is to reflect accurately on the life of a gay man then there should be scope for well written female characters.

I have to say that it’s rare in m/m fiction to find a female character that I like and identify with. On the whole they are made up of stereotypes – the fag hag, the annoying female friend whose actions cause more harm than good, the slapper who wants to separate the heroes, the desperate woman who won’t take no for an answer, the ex-wife who is only after money, etc, etc. If these are the sorts of women who are going to appear in m/m then I’d rather not have any female characters at all.  If there is a woman in m/m then all too often I feel that they have only been placed in the book as the ‘token female’.  These characters aren’t particularly well rounded and may often appear only in minor roles and usually take on the role of the caring sympathetic ear with whom the hero can pour out his troubles or, even more insulting in my opinion, as a homemaker who is interested only in her own family and home.  I often wonder whether these ‘token females’ have been included so as to make the straight women who are reading m/m books more comfortable,  and like Wave said, somehow legitimise our reading of books containing sex between men.

On the other hand, when done well the female character can counteract all the testosterone in an m/m book and is often the voice of sense when things might get a bit heated.  I’ve seen it done well in quite a number of books and these friendships form some of the most realistic portrayals of women.  After all many people, gay or straight, have a wide variety of friends of both genders and this should be shown in m/m books too.  The only main objection I have is that there are too many men in m/m who are shown as having one female friend and no others.  I have always find this to be odd, especially as in general people make close friends with people of the same gender, which implies either that the gay man has closer links with women than men – which is frankly rather insulting – or that straight men are not comfortable being friends with a gay man.  My own experience tells me that neither of these ideas are right and yet there are very few characters in m/m who have straight male friends.

So to close my section, I do think there is a place for women in m/m in a wide variety of roles and as long as there is a clear purpose to the character and they are not relegated to stereotypes.  Otherwise  I’ll just take the men, thank you!

And that’s a wrap people!

Author

I live in Canada and I love big dogs, music, movies, reading and sports – especially baseball

78 comments

  • Pat
    We make the point many times in our reviews, about the stereotypes in M/M books – not just women but all the “evil” right wingers and religious zealots who permeate these books. The real bigots and villains are the next door neighbours and the “friends” who never invite you over to dinner because you’re “different,” not the over the top characters in a lot of M/M books.
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    I guess it’s more fun for authors to write the characters the way they are currently portrayed, but it takes a lot more skill and it’s more challenging to write people they way they really are.

    Reply
  • I almost always have women in my m/m books and they are almost always positive. Why on earth should they be negative or absent? That’s like saying everyone in a m/m book should be gay. Why? Is that real life? I don’t write fantasy and I don’t read it, so I women in that world and to portray them negatively all the time is like gays used to be shown in the past — either the bad guys, sinners who needed to be punished at the end of the book, or the butt of jokes. That was insulting to gays then and it’s insulting to women now.

    Reply
    • Pat
      My point was – if writers are only going to portray women negatively in M/M books then don’t write them as characters. I would sooner not have them and have the guys live in gaytopia, than have the bitchy, whining, manipulative, whoring, crappy women which seem to pervade M/M romances.

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      We had an excellent example on the site a couple of days ago in a book that Lynn reviewed which gave the female in the book almost all of the characteristics described above.

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      I’m hoping that some of the authors who read this post will change their evil ways and give us real women of good character. Of course there always will be villians – male and female – but let’s not go overboard on the female harpy.

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      Thanks for commenting Pat and I appreciate your perspective. As I’m sure you can tell, this is a sore subject for me.

      Reply
      • In which case I heartily agree with you. I go further, don’t portray anyone stereotypically. I’d even go so far as to say a good writer will even approach true villains with an eye to making them human — nobody ever sees themselves as evil, everyone is a hero in their own story, and that wold include people like right wing evangelicals who think gays and everyone who isn’t a right wing evangelical will burn in hell are heroes to themselves. Be honest and portray them that way — trust me, their evilness will show through and the story will be richer for not having shallow, cardboard bad guys.

        Reply
  • I am so late, but I saw this on the popular topics and wanted to add my two cents. My attention span is blah today so I only read about half the post opinions and none of the reader comments, but what I wanted to say is not so much a defense argument against women being portrayed badly in gay fiction but I wanted to comment on trends in general. As an analytical person I frequently find similarities in stories–that is to say, I tend to link a topic that has been beat to death over and over again in the books I read. For example: I’ve noticed a prevalence in gay fiction for men getting drunk and making out or making confessions they would never have normally make if they were sober.I am guilty as charged for using this tactic, but “I” am only one author. When taken into consideration with dozens of authors who have used this same ‘plot device’ does this really reflect gay fiction author’s opinions on how men communicate or overcome their ‘gay shyness’ or is this a coincidence that so many of us use this plot device. In other words, have I noticed it because so many authors have put it in their story just the ‘once’? The same thing can be said about creating a female ‘b*tch’. Has this subject come to light because dozens of author’s used this tactic only ‘once’. Whose fault is it that so many authors have the same idea?

    Heh, I don’t know if I’m making any sense at this point, but what I am trying to get across is perhaps it is not the ‘mindset’ of the author or their intention to make females look terrible in gay fiction. There must be a villain, yes? And if every author that wrote gay fiction used a female villain in one of their stories it would still seem like gay fiction author’s were wrongfully stereotyping female’s in their stories.

    On the other hand I’ve read plenty of novels where the male villain was so grossly evil that I cringed, and you never hear about men being portrayed badly. Maybe it is because their is a positive male role to balance him out in gay fiction. Perhaps then, what stories need are more positive female roles, even if the villain is a woman.

    Reply

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