It all started a couple of days ago when I noticed PBW calling certain types of historical romance heroes “sheroes” because they were too nice, too sensitive.
Then Ferfelabat in the comments to this entry on Monica’s blog noted how historical heroes should be mean, and characterized modern men as “metrosexual-pc-chest-hair-shaving-how-are-you-feeling-today-babe? (Somebody just freaking KILL me already I so do not find most modern men attractive) millenium-male-neutering-at-birth-must-stop!-90’s.”
And then I remembered this previous rant I wrote and am again fascinated by what people perceive as acceptable or attractive masculine behavior, especially in a historical context.
I once said that one of the few constants in this world is how people of the older generation love to bitch about how the younger generation is dumber, more degenerate and generally more useless and going to hell in a handbasket. I realize now that another constant is how, as people get older, standards of masculine and feminine behavior of the newer generation are examined and judged as wanting. The men are distressingly girly, and the women unbecomingly forward (substitute with slutty and/or mannish as appropriate). The refrain “When men were men and women were women” is an old one, repeated with wistfulness by the old guard everywhere as the young ‘uns rebel and do something distasteful to their settled sensibilities—like women deciding to wear pants.
From the sounds of it, you’d think that behaving like a pissed-off, marauding soldier (yeah, that’s sexy—ask some Bosnian refugees what REAL marauding soldiers do*) or an unwashed mountain man is the be-all and end-all of platonic masculinity. Real men just take what they want! Real men don’t cry! Real men don’t care what they look or smell like! Real men sprout hair from any and all parts and orifices, and are PROUD of that hair, dammit!
In short: Real men aren’t pussies. In Romancelandia, there seems to be an underlying assumption that the only real men, especially men in historicals, are alpha heroes—VERY alpha heroes who, if they existed in real life, would be jailed for battery and sexual assault.
But if you read literature written by people living in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, like Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, the Bronte sisters, Samuel Johnson, Alexander Pope, George Eliot, Lord Byron, Sir Walter Scott, etc. ad nauseam, and if you look at former societal standards of what constituted ideal or desirable manly behavior, there was quite a bit of what would qualify as girly-man behavior going on, especially in the middle and upper classes, which is what most historical romances portray.
Courtly love. Code of chivalry. WIGS, POETRY, SATIN AND LACE, FOR GOD’S FUCKING SAKES. Byron wrote love poetry and he was the fucking rock star of his age. Men who write love poetry NOW?
The word starts with “p” and ends in “ussies.”
So repeat after me: standards of masculine behavior are changeable. Standards of masculine behavior are changeable.
Above and beyond all that, I also find it fascinating when people use comparisons to femininity in a pejorative sense. It’s one thing to not like a certain type of hero and elaborate why; it’s another to drag the opposite gender into it—though I guess I admire the efficiency in slamming both at once. And that thought led to another tangential musing, one that I think I’ve talked about before on this site: It used to be that masculine women were viewed with a certain degree of horror, but nowadays, if given a choice, I think many, many parents (at least those in industrialized nations) would prefer daughters who like toy soldiers and trucks vs. sons who like Barbie dolls and sparkly purses. The stigma of femininity is still very much with us; this is evident in the fact that women get to wear pants but men aren’t allowed to wear dresses and skirts. It seems to me that when blurring of gender roles and lines are allowed, allowing women to adopt superficial masculine traits is more acceptable than the reverse. Maybe because women WANT to adopt those masculine traits, but most men are not as willing to take on traits associated with the weaker sex?
(Um, sorry for sounding like a half-baked women’s studies paper all of a sudden.)
So following on that, is that why many readers of genre fiction—which often concerns itself with well-known and well-worn tropes and forms—are so discomfited, even hostile, to characters who violate gender lines? And I’m not just talking about romance novels, girly-man heroes and female readers. You can also see this sort of reaction in some male SF readers who seem to have an allergic reaction to assertive female characters in their stories.
But then, as I thought more about it, I realized that what PBW and other people complain about when it comes to annoying girly-men heroes aren’t so much feminine traits as they are just plain annoying traits. They’re talking about heroes who sound smothering, ineffectual, clingy and, well, kind of wimpy. These features are more acceptable when found in women, but c’mon: who likes clingy, ineffectual wimps of ANY gender? When heroines do the same thing, we call them doormats.
So why drag girliness or femininity into it at all?
Think about this another way: it’d be like me comparing a particularly violent alpha asshole hero who physically hurts the heroine to, say, a black dude. I’m not comparing him to a thug, or a criminal—those would be undesirable no matter what race you were. Instead, it’s: What’s with all these heroes treating their heroines the way black men treat their women? What’s with all these ne-roes?
When changed so that the comparison is a bit more charged, it gives it a whole other feel, doesn’t it?
Now, I’m not saying I’m exempt from this sort of gender-based shorthand. Check out how many times I use the word “pussy” pejoratively on this website. So in many ways, it’s a case of pot, kettle, black. The messenger has a whole lot to do with the message, too. PBW gets leeway because she’s a woman as well as a writer and reader of romances, leeway I’m not sure a man who doesn’t read or write romances would get, and I’m sure that if I were black, that my hypothetical comparison would take on other dimensions, too.
Still and all: isn’t it interesting?
Personally, I like all sorts of heroes. I like alpha heroes as long as they don’t cross the line and physically or sexually hurt the heroine. Confident, take-charge types are very attractive. The perfect alpha hero for me is Sebastian Dain from Lord of Scoundrels. He’s bad, he’s stubborn, and he’s a Type A personality—but in just the right way, and we get enough of his backstory that we understand why he’s such an asshole at times.
On the other hand, I also like heroes who are angsty and tortured but not necessarily alpha, like the kind Laura Kinsale excels at creating. And I love beta/gamma-type heroes who take on some of the roles that are typically assigned the heroine, such as healer and nurturer.
I’ve noted before that I enjoy it when taboos involving gender lines are broken, or at least bent and bashed around a bit. It’s part of the reason why I like romances involving cross-dressing. When the characters are feeling what seems, at the surface, to be a homosexual attraction? Love it. Love watching the characters struggle with it. Some people are squicked by the idea that the characters, by evincing this attraction, are not 100% hetero. Most of the people I know who are squicked by this aspect almost always say the hero is showing signs of being gay and they’re worried that he might run off with the footman, when really, he’s showing signs of being bisexual, and tendencies towards monogamy are not, as far as I know, exclusively associated with sexual orientation.
Overall, however, the underlying message is a pretty attractive one to me, even if it’s not necessarily realistic: that it’s the essence of somebody that’s attractive, and not necessarily their packaging, even something as powerful like gender. The moment in Shadow Dance when Sophie tells Valerian (whom she thinks is a woman) that she loves him and is willing to follow him anywhere, even after he tells her he’d have sex with her if she does (again, the assumption being that he’s a woman)? One of my most favorite scenes in any book, anywhere.
In real life, I’m attracted to men who aren’t stereotypically masculine. The metrosexual, body-shaving type? OK, I can’t stand people who primp too much, male OR female, but men who *koff* shave and know how to dress well, who know their way around literature, music and pop culture, who aren’t afraid to display or engage in a discussion about squishy feelings when called for, who are able to poke fun at themselves, who are secure enough to wear make-up and a dress when the occasion calls for it? HOT.
So here’s a salute to the real girly men: men who confound gender stereotypes and expectations and look pretty fucking sexy while doing it. Long may you prosper. There aren’t nearly enough of you in Romancelandia.
* Yes, I realize the whole Conquering Hero fantasy is just that: a fantasy, and that it bears no resemblance to the real-life brutalities perpetrated during war time, but allow me this little bit of hyperbole, eh? Hey, if PBW can do it, why can’t I? Oh, wait I review books, and therefore am lower than the lowliest prokaryote. Sorry, forgot that. That lack of a cell nucleus really fucks with my short-term memory. Also, my ability to use commas, em dashes and parantheses with proper discretion. DAMN YOU, CELL NUCLEI!