mm romance and queer fatalism
January 14, 2017
Sara Ahmed just published a post about ‘queer fatalism’ and it has allowed me to organize some of my thoughts about why the mm genre is so frequently viciously homophobic…
By queer fatalism I am not referring to such a belief system but to the assumption that to be queer is to hurtle toward a miserable fate. Queer fatalism is how a queer demise is explained and made inevitable. Queer deaths are often framed as a consequence of queerness; queer fatalism = queer as fatal.
Ultimately, most mm romance books are written within this framework. Many of them are simply various articulations and explorations of queer fatalism.
I suppose that if this post is to make any sense, I ought to make at least some kind of distinction between ‘mm fiction’ and ‘gay fiction/literature’. Since I hate most delineations of genre (particularly if they are based around identity) that rely on spurious notions of ‘authenticity’ (as in, gay lit/fiction can only be written by self-identified gay people), that isn’t how I’m going to mark the difference here.
For me, the difference lies not in who is writing the book, necessarily, but on a sense, almost, of aesthetics. It is one of theme, framework, aAnd queer fatalism as a frame is also about how or where happiness is found; how a more positive slant is created by placing queerness outside the picture; in the effort to find what is good about a life somewhere else,nd such things. An example: Andrew Grey is a prolific mm writer. He is also an Actual Gay Man(tm). But notice how I’m identifying him as an mm writer and not writer of gay fic/lit. His books fit firmly within the aesthetics of the mm genre. They have the same themes, the same ethics, and so on. As a contract, R. Cooper is not a gay man (I’m not quite clear on how she positively identifies but she isn’t, at least, a gay man), but I’d consider some (if not all) of her work to be gay fiction/literature.
Indeed, based on part of one of the things I’m trying to articulate in this post about queer fatalism is that it is one key way to distinguish between what is mm and what is gay. I mention aesthetics because, in a lot of ways, the mm genre is about queer fatalism as an aesthetic. In other words, it is the celebration and romanticization of queer death.
Yes, there is gay fiction that has elements of queer fatalism, but I’m straining to think of any that treat queer fatalism as beautiful as aspiration rather than cautionary tale. Many gay novels mobilize queer fatalism as a type of cautionary tale. Or they invoke it as a tragedy. But only in the mm genre is queer fatalism treated as what is beautiful. What is romantic. What is the source of all happy endings.
Happy endings, in the mm genre, are the result of queer death. In this way, queer fatalism is treated as a positive, generative force, instead of the destructive, oppressive thing that is in real life. As Ahmed writes, “And queer fatalism as a frame is also about how or where happiness is found; how a more positive slant is created by placing queerness outside the picture; in the effort to find what is good about a life somewhere else”.
Happily ever after in these books is predicated on heternormativity and homonationalism. Its a sheer coincidence, I’m sure, that most of the books end up with the two men in a monogamous (often getting married) relationship where they frequently end up with children:
And we tell other stories, happier ones, even. It is true that some versions of queer happiness are rather bleak versions of what we might call happy homonormativity: where queers find happiness by an increasing proximity to norms that been the site of exclusion: by marrying, being reproductive, becoming good citizens; moving up, moving out.
Happy whiteness, happy straightness, a shiny bright family; see how they gather.
We do not gather; this happiness can be fatal.
And, yes, when I speak of these happy endings being generated by queer death, I am speaking metaphorically. So many tropes in the mm genre make it very clear that ‘our’ happiness always depends on “placing queerness outside the picture”:
##The slutty gay man who falls in love, goes monogamous, gets married, and has a baby.
As I write the above, there are so many book titles flitting through my brain that its kind of hard to pick just one as an example. But… I think Still by Mary Calmes is the best one. In the book, the slutty guy – in the span of one day – goes from being wild and slutty to in a long-term, monogamous marriage raising the other guy’s kids. I shit you not.
Promiscuity in these books is almost always a character flaw. In and of itself, it may not be shown as a negative thing, but no gay man in the mm genre is allowed to be promiscious and have a happy ending. The lesson we learn is that gay happiness relies on the death of queer promiscuity.
And, yeah, I know a few people are thinking, “isn’t the image of the slutty gay man a harmful stereotype?”. Yes and no. John Rechy comes to mind. He is, undoubtedly, a gay man. Who had a lot of fucking sex. In public places. His non-fiction work, The Sexual Outlaw comes most prominently to mind. He very much articulates a notion in the book about fucking as praxis, particularly regarding public sex. To him, promiscuity is a type of freedom. It is liberatory and not something that needs to die in order for him, a gay man, to be happy.
##The Closeted gay man who finally realizes that he can still have a family or whatever and be happy.
My favourite example of this is probably The Half of Us by Cardeno C. In the book there is a promiscuious gay man who tried the closet thing, so is divorced and with two kids. He is convinced that men are for fucking and has resigned himself to never having the family he’s always dreamed of. He meets a guy and eventually realizes that he can have a family after all.
A frequent motivation for being in the closet in the mm genre is the desire for procreation. Notice that I’m purposefully not writing ‘family’ here. Most of the books will call it family, but in the end it almost always boils down to procreation. Being gay is a tragedy because it means you can’t have kids. That reproduction is beyond your reach. And for those not in the closet in the narration, as in the above novel, the inability to reproduce (heternormative families) is a source of despair. In many cases, this is also the cause of promiscuity. We get a narrative wherein gay men are slutty because they are trying to vill the void left by reproduction in their lives.
The obvious constrast, here, is the gay notion of chosen families. Yes. One of the major anxieties surrounding the closet is the potential loss of one’s bio family. In many queer happy endings I’ve seen, this anxiety is assauged by the notion that we can find and choose our own families. That we can create families of any number of infinite compositions, while the poor straights are stuck endlessly reproducing the atomic family. The example that first comes to mind is Ethan Mordden’s Buddy cycle. It is a set of five volumes of short stories that, ultimately, are the history of one such chosen family.’
##The closeted man who realizes that being gay doesn’t make him less of a man.
This is a personal favourite of mine (as in I read the books bc I identify with the femme boy but I fucking hate this trope with a burning passion). This trope is all about a masc4masc guy (often closeted) who falls in love with some fey, femme boy and learns that being a man (being masculine) is about more than conforming to toxic masculinity. Unfortunately, this lesson is almost always learned via violence done to the femme boy – who in almost every instance I’ve seen of this story, is the victim of some kind of gay bashing.
The best example of this is probably Loving Jay by Renea Kaye. In the story we have a man who insists he isn’t gay but is totally smitten with this femme guy he sees on the train. As they start to get to know each other they hit a turning point when he rescues the femme from a gay bashing. His masculinity is, later on, ultimately affirmed when he discovers that, yes, he is gay because he is a butch top. The interest twist to his gay denial earlier in the book is that he had tried gay sex, but as a bottom. And it just didn’t feel right. So he becomes convinced that he isn’t gay.
We can contrast this with TJ Klune’s The Queen and the Homo Jock King. The main character is a drag queen. But at no point in the book does he get gay bashed and him being a queen isn’t about affirming the butch guy’s masculinity. Indeed no part of the conflict or romance depends on this aspect of the character. The ‘homo jock’ doesn’t have to try and deal with his misogyny and femmephobia in order to love the queen. Instead, we get a story that is about something else.
Ok. I’m done. I think covering three tropes is more than enough. I’m sure people get my point.
But ultimately, this is why the mm genre will always be homophobic. It is why, whatever the justifications I see written in its defense, despite whatever apologisms I see, it cannot be any but homophobic. And, again, as I noted above. While I picked examples written by gay men vs. women, I easily could’ve picked examples of mm written by gay men and examples of gay literature written by women.
And I hate that I have to write this caveat because I know a bunch of people will interpret me as saying mm authors are homophobic. No. What I’m saying is that the mm genre is homophobic. As soon as you remove queer fatalism as an aesthetic choice, it isn’t the mm genre any more. Its just gay fiction.
I also want to point out that I also didn’t pick books that I hate. To make examples of them. Each of the books I picked as being examplars of mm tropes are books that I like and have listened to multiple times. I think the only book I mention that I didn’t enjoy and have only read/listened to once is The Sexual Outlaw.
Anyway. To put it shortly:
The mm genre is queer fatalism as aesthetic.