Trigger Warnings: talk about date rape.
For years, I’ve been a little hesitant to dive into social media or devour pop culture for fear of being excluded or unintentionally triggered. Reading anything is sometimes a struggle for me, a battle between self-preservation and the insatiable desire to escape into someone else’s imagination for a little while. Writing can be very solitary, but reading is communion.
After Clancy got me to start using Tumblr, I realized how many people were talking about this new cultural frontier of intersectional feminism and LGBTQ+ rights. Human rights. My rights and yours. I’m not alone in my fears or my hesitation to dive in whole-heartedly the way I did as a kid.
In this new pop culture framework where Tumblr fandoms influence the fates of their obsessions, I wonder where the romance genre lands. Romance novels have long been a battleground between feminist libido and feminine wish fulfillment–as a product largely consumed by and intended for women–and a patriarchal holdfast wherein authors regurgitate the same internalized sexism and gender roles prevalent in male-controlled media. Each author has to decide for themselves what motivates and arouses them, what drives their writing and its dynamics.
Are they entrapped in the patriarchal norm, writing and responding only to the historically mandated ideals of masculinity? Are they innovating and using their voices to subvert expectations while still enjoying the sex appeal of strong heroes?
As a trans* man, some of those hypermasculine “alpha” heroes with outsized cocks appeal to and inspire me and some demean me. Some make me feel as if I’m deluding myself that people will ever acknowledge me as a man, while others are nuanced and irresistible and make me want to either be him or be with him. You can guess which I prefer to read, but you might also guess it’s hard to know which I’m picking up when I buy a novel.
The thing is, it’s not just me. We’re living in a post-Tumblr world. The number of young women and LGBTQ+ 18-34-year-olds out there is massive, and many of them are educated and plugged into this new enlightenment in a way that can make them wary of traditional romance, even or especially when those traditional mindsets are tucked into queer-themed fiction.
There’s a phenomenally huge audience for slash fiction–stories with m/m pairings set within fandoms–but I don’t see as much crossover between that teeming, tempting mass of potential fans and the m/m romance world as I’d expect. I can’t even pretend I’m not still a fanboy; I read it myself sometimes (cough Rowan Grant), and so much of that fanfiction adheres to romance genre standards. So much of it is basically an m/m romance novel that borrows characters from an established source, clocks in over 50k words, written by the Tumblr generation, complete with elaborate trigger warnings and all kinds of feminist interjections.
And it isn’t original fiction by the strictest standards, but the AUs (alternate universes) often take the characters to such original, unrecognizable places that it might as well be. And it gets gobbled up by the truckload. Look at some of the comments/hits statistics on Ao3 sometime.
So how do we persuade this young, hip, m/m-crazy audience to buy our books? That’s the question I’m pondering. That’s where I grow curious about the future of the genre.
The new pop culture hero doesn’t look like Fabio. He’s not so aggressive that a night with him necessarily starts off “no, I can’t” and dissolves into “oh no, oh yes” because date rape is horrifyingly prevalent nowadays, and the old shame about women enjoying sex is vanishing only to be replaced with the shame of “I’m not sure I said no. I think I said no. I didn’t want to, though. He made me.” The new pop culture hero is aware of things like personal agency. He knows that enthusiastic consent is important from his partner. And from all I’ve read and everyone I’ve talked to, I think m/m is in part so popular among women because it creates a buffer between troubled personal histories and the heroes of the story, which does some of our work for us…unless you’re also planning to write for transmasculine individuals and men who have sex with men.
And maybe some amazing stories–romances, mind!–toe the line. Maybe things get real fucked up. But ultimately, the authorial voice is aware that it’s wrong to violate someone’s boundaries and knows where those boundaries are. The authorial tone reassures a reader. The self-aware author’s plotting ensures justice and a happy ending. The author behind the work knows when their hero is crossing boundaries and at which point he becomes an antihero or even a villain. The modern author has educated themself about triggers and internalized biases. They create the new pop culture hero by applying that knowledge wisely and making real happy endings happen for a whole new generation of readers.
Some people–myself included–really enjoy dark stories. I’ve fallen in love with my share of villains. Sometimes picking at a wound is so satisfying you can’t resist doing it. And I would never tell anyone what they should or shouldn’t write; I don’t believe in censorship. This isn’t about stifling our unique voices as authors but about what we reveal through our writing about ourselves–and whether we’re relatable to the audiences we want to reach.
As we write–as I write–we have to grapple with the things Generation X and its predecessors have endured, the things they’ve been taught to accept and enjoy without question. If we want a new generation to bring its numbers and its hunger for new stories to our genre, we need to be aware of what we’re putting in to the product we’re putting out. If we want fresh new readers, maybe we need to find ways to make our romances as fresh as our target demographic, full of our passion for true love, our well-considered values, and our faith in the authenticity of our happy endings.