Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Gender and the Appeal of the Male/Male Romance: Alexis Hall's HOW TO BANG A BILLIONAIRE

In the comments section of  my first review of a m/m romance on this blog (Alex Beecroft's Blessed Isle, back in 2013), several commenters chimed in with reasons why they found m/m romance novels appealing, often more appealing than heterosexual romances. For example, commenter Lawless wrote, "It's the ability to bypass the baggage of gender roles so that the characters meet on more of an equal playing field that most attracts me to m/m romance." At the time, I wasn't that persuaded by such arguments; aren't there power dynamics at work in romances with only male protagonists, just as much as there are in books with a man and woman as the leads?

But I'm starting to see this argument in a new light, after reading the first installment of Alexis Hall's new Arden St. Ives series, How to Bang a Billionaire. In a reimagining/retelling of 50 Shades of Grey, Hall makes the classic feminist move—switch the sex of a story's main character, and see if the narrative still makes sense; if it doesn't, said narrative is probably pretty mired in stereotypical gender norms. In Hall's story, female college senior Anastasia Steele changes not only sex, but also sexual orientation and nationality. Third-year Oxford University student Arden St. James, an irreverent, distractible, easily-embarrassed commitment-phobe, first meets his billionaire not by conducting an in-person interview for the college newspaper, but, in irreverent Hall fashion, by dialing him up during a telethon fundraising call on behalf of the university:

"Hello! I'm Arden St. Ives, calling from St. Sebastian's Coll—"
Click.

After enduring a long series of hang-ups, Arden follows the fundraisers' advice to put a smile in his voice ("I made sure I was grinning as if I'd swallowed a coat hanger" [4]) and gets a caller to remain on the line long enough for him to get in a second sentence. And a third. And more. Each less conventional, more argumentative, and more entertaining, than the last. Until suddenly Arden is dreaming about the stern stranger on the other end of the phone line, wishing he could convince Mr. Caspian Hart to telebond, not just teleflirt, with him.

Arden's X-rated dreams come to spectacular, if brief, life when Hart decides to attend the in-person fundraiser to which Arden invited him during their brief call. During which Arden finds himself falling to his knees on a shaded balcony, offering comfort to the controlled, compelling man in the only way he senses Hart will accept it—in the form of sexual submission.

And it was at this point that I really got what Lawless and other m/m fans were talking about, when they wrote about gendered power relations being "bypassed" in the subgenre. In 50 Shades, Anastasia Steele has little to no familiarity with BDSM practices; Christian Grey serves as her tutor to the pleasures and pains of the Red Room. In contrast, Hall's Arden is well-informed, both about the existence of BDSM and about his own "tastes," which lean towards the sexually submissive. But even if Ana had been sexually skilled, and Arden an innocent, the question of why each gets turned on by being sexually submissive feels different when it is asked of a man rather than of a woman. When I pose that question to a woman (or to a female character), I cannot help but also ask the related question: Is a woman simply taking on the stereotypical feminine role when she accepts, or even wants, the role of sexual submissive? Does her desire to do so stem as much from, if not more from, her desire to embody "natural" femininity as it does from any internal, inherent desires? And if it does, is it problematic for her to act on those desires? By acting on them, is she participating in perpetuating, or at least tacitly accepting, stereotypes that insist that women be submissive in all areas of life, not just the sexual?

But when I ask the same question of Arden, or another male character, that question doesn't come weighted with the same gendered baggage. Identifying as male, but simultaneously identifying as sexually submissive, Arden is acting on a desire that goes against the social norm of what it means to be masculine. And thus his desire, his act, comes across as rebellion against, rather than acceptance of, the expected, rather than suspected as possibly collusion with repressive gender norms, as it might have if he were, or identified as, a woman.

Does it matter where one's sexual desires come from? Caspian Hart, mired in guilt for his sadistic sexual proclivities, certainly believes so. But Arden, in his joking, digressive, not quite sure way, offers a different possibility:

     "Those impulses in me aren't. . . that is, they don't come from a good place."
     "Well, neither do mushrooms, but they're delicious in garlic."
     Caspian made a sound that could have been a laugh. "I have no idea what you're trying to say."
     "Just that maybe it doesn't matter where your desires from from? Only that they're there and I. . .um . . .welcome them."
     "But I don't like what they make me."
     "Who says they have to make you anything? What you're into can sometimes just be what you're into." (315)

I'm guessing from other hints in the story that ultimately the series is going to come down on Arden's, rather than Caspian's side in this debate. But would it if Arden had been a woman, rather than a man? Ad if it did, would I be as accepting of it?

Is a cigar sometimes just a cigar? Or does it only have the potential to be a cigar if it is a man, rather than a woman, who is smoking it?


Photo credits:
Feminine stereotypes: Mindscaped







Alexis Hall
Forever Yours, 2017

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Origins of the Alpha Male?

During a workshop discussion on sex-positivity in romance at the recent New England RWA Conference, author Alyssa Cole mentioned in passing that a fellow writer (didn't catch the name) once told her that the term "alpha" had originated not in the study of wolves and wolf pack behavior, but rather from a far less lofty animal: the chicken. And not in studies of male roosters, bossing around a pack of obedient female chickens, but rather from the pecking order of chickens. Female chickens. Yes, that's right. Alpha hens, anyone?

After hearing Cole's claim, I couldn't help but be tickled by the image of a plethora of urban fantasy shifter chicks (of the feathered, rather than the human, variety) suddenly dominating the paranormal romance charts. But her statement also made me intellectually curious: I couldn't help but want to track down that chicken citation, to see if the great irony of hens as the source of alpha-ness in romance could possibly be true.

Zoologists have studied dominance patterns in chickens for more than 100 years, but I couldn't find any references to the term "alpha" in (my admittedly brief foray into) such work. A Journal of Genetic Psychology article from 1968 by Richard Gottier, "The Dominance-Submission Hierarchy in the Social Behavior of the Domestic Chicken," points to Norwegian Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe as the first to research dominance behavior in chickens. His dissertation dates from 1921, and was "introduced" into English in 1927, according to Wikipedia. But it is the colloquial phrase "peck order" or "pecking order" which seems to stem from Schjelderup-Ebbe's research, rather than the phrase "alpha male."

The Oxford English Dictionary dates the first use of both "alpha" (in the sense of "designating a dominant individual, especially one dominant among others of its own sex in a mixed group of social animals") and its gendered derivative, "alpha male," to a 1938 article in the Journal of Comparative Psychology by one J. Ulrich. Unfortunately, a search of the journal's online listings reveals the animals analyzed in Ulrich's study are not hens. But their subject is almost as amusing, when set in the context of romance alpha maleness. The title of Ulrich's study? "The Social Hierarchy of Albino Mice."

Might the word or the term have appeared earlier than Ulrich? A Google Books Advanced search for "alpha male" between 1900 and 1930 brings up no further zoological citations, but does feature several references to the "Alpha Male Quartette" (otherwise known as the Rockefeller Bible class quartette), performing at a rally for young Baptists, for the Michigan Thresherman's Society, and the Illinois State Penitentiary at Joliet.


If anyone out there has any further information about the link between the phrase "alpha male" and chicken (or mice) research, I'd love to hear about it...


Photo credits:
Pecking order: Born Again Farm Girl
Albino mouse: Costume Shop


Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Expanding the Romance Reader's View of History: Alyssa Cole's AN EXTRAORDINARY UNION

In the Author's Note at the end of her historical romance An Extraordinary Union, Alyssa Cole explains why she never expected to write any kind of historical romance, especially not a romance set during the Civil War:

When I first became serious about my writing, I decided that, although I loved reading historical romance, I'd best stay away from it. It would lead to too many feelings to untangle, too much unfairness to wrap up with a happy ending, given the kind of heroes and heroines I enjoy writing. (Kindle Loc 3677)

What led Cole to change her mind? Learning more about the history of African Americans, especially those "I'd never been taught [about] in the classroom—beyond the simplified stories of George Washington Carver loving peanuts and Rosa Parks being tired" (3677). Reading about the histories of real African Americans of the past, Cole discovered not only people who were active participants in the fight against slavery; she discovered a deep desire to share their stories with romance readers, many of whom had likely grown up with the same gaps in their knowledge of the past as she had. By "extending the tropes of the Civil War [romance] beyond 'brother fighting brother' and 'swooning southern belle,' " Cole found herself able to explore the histories of people those familiar tropes typically erase: those of a "darker hue."

The Virginia State capital in Richmond, which in 1861
 also became the capital of the Confederacy
The heroine of An Extraordinary Union is not a swooning southern belle, but a woman who gives every appearance of being a dutiful slave: Ellen Burns, a mute black woman enslaved by the white Caffrey family, whose patriarch serves as a senator in the recently-formed Confederate government. But readers know from the start that Elle is far more than she appears: an intrepid, sharp-tongued spy who uses her eidetic memory and her devotion to justice to ferret out secrets that will help the Union cause.

Born into slavery, Elle and her parents were freed by their white master after he inherited them from his father. So, too, was Mary Bowser, the African-American Union spy upon whom Elle is based. But unlike Bowser, who, after being manumitted, remained in the south working as a paid servant in the Richmond, Virginia household in which she was born, Elle and her family moved north to Massachusetts after gaining their freedom. Bowser became a spy as part of the network founded by her white employer, Elizabeth Van Lew, but Elle is part of a mysterious "Loyal League" run by a man named LaValle, a man whose race is not specified (at least not in this first book of the series). But Cole's story makes it clear that there are other blacks involved in the Loyal League's work. These small changes—far less improbable or jarring than most of the historical anachronisms found in many a historical romance—bring Elle closer to the "kind of heroine" Cole "enjoys writing": a resourceful, empowered, decisive woman who chooses to act in the face of oppression.

The real-life Mary Bowser married a free black man just days before the start of the Civil War. But Cole chooses a completely different fellow to be Elle's partner in spying and in romance: a charming white Scot detective/spy, Malcolm McCall (based on the real life Pinkerton detective/spy Timothy Webster). McCall, sent to Richmond to ferret out whatever secrets he can, ingratiates himself with the Caffreys by putting forth a convincing performance as an aggrieved southern racist, and by wooing the selfish daughter of the house—"all's fair in love and secession," as Malcolm cheerfully tells himself. But it is really Elle to whom Malcolm finds himself drawn.

Though on the surface, Elle and Malcolm seem to have little in common, both have seen firsthand how tyranny can warp both the oppressed and the oppressor. Even so, Elle is more than reluctant to act on her own attraction to the engaging Malcolm. Dallying at all, and especially with a white man, will only distract her from her true purpose. But as the two share rumors and information, they also discuss the frustrations and fears their work, and the state of their country, engender, conversations that bring them emotionally closer. In perhaps their rawest exchange, issues of white guilt and black anger come to the fore, in a conversation that could as easily be held in 2017 as in 1861:
 
   
Timothy Webster, Union spy
 He'd always prided himself as a friend and ally to every man who sought equality, but was that true? Or had he imagined himself a savior instead?
     He shook his head, disgusted with himself. With everything. When he spoke again, his voice was a raw whisper in the silence. "You deserve to be outraged. All of your people do. Why you didn't set this country ablaze a hundred years ago is beyond me."
     Elle jumped to her feet, not very much taller than him even though he knelt and she stood. When she spoke, her fury was constrained in a voice that fairly dripped with annoyance at having to explain something very obvious to him. "Because, unlike you, we don't have the luxury of being outraged. If we rebelled and set half the country on fire, where would that leave us? You think that would make folks see us as more human?
     "Given the way they treat their slaves, maybe it would," he muttered darkly. "Maybe the only way for this country to be cleansed of its sins is to burn them away."
     "What, an eye for an eye?" she scoffed. " 'If I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear?' What rubbish." She fixed him with a look that made him regret that the words had even crossed his mind, let alone left his mouth. "The blood of my people permeates the very foundation of this country. Even if everything from the Eastern seaboard to the furthest territory out West was razed to the ground, it couldn't make up for the injustice. And if you think that's what I'm fighting for, what every Negro putting their life on the line to stop the Confederacy is fighting for, then you've misunderstood everything. You've misunderstood me. . . . you can keep your outrage. All I can do is try to make a difference."  (1275-90)


Cole's novel is not without its flaws. The spy storyline tips into melodrama towards the final pages, when Elle and Malcolm uncover a Confederate plan to break the Union blockade of Richmond and rush to escape their suddenly suspicious enemies. And the requirement that a historical romance supply a certain number of sex scenes makes Elle and Malcolm's physical relationship happen a little too quickly to be quite convincing given the dangers of their positions and the importance of their work. But such flaws are minor in the face of the hopeful possibility that An Extraordinary Union just might open the minds of readers spoon-fed the falsities of "Rosa Parks was tired" and "George Washington Carver loved peanuts" to a far more complicated reality: that African Americans of the past can and did take active, and successful, roles in the fight against slavery and oppression.


Photo/illustration credits:
Confederate capital: U.S. Parks Service
Bowser gravestone & drawing: Substantial Music
Timothy Webster: Wikipedia








An Extraordinary Union
A Novel of the Civil War
Kensington, 2017