Sex, Books and Gender Roles: Guest Post

This is a guest post from romantic suspense author Jill Sorenson. Jill and I follow each other on Twitter and I’ve enjoyed several of her books. She asked if I’d be interested in posting it because we get good discussions going here–so please do add your thoughts in the comments!

I consider myself a heroine-centric reader. I buy books written by women and read more romance than anything else. I don’t feel like I’m missing out on the male perspective because it’s everywhere. We cut our teeth on it. And although I love men, in fiction and real life, I’ve never tried to attract male readers.

“Shoo, men.”

This is my basic attitude about men reading romance. I don’t really care if they read it or what they think about it. The romance genre isn’t for them. Their (generally negative) opinion of it makes very little difference to me. I don’t think rap music needs white people to give it legitimacy. The same goes for men and romance. Its lack of appeal to the average male reader is an interesting issue to discuss, but it’s not a problem to overcome. The genre is thriving with a majority female readership. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: In publishing, men need us more than we need them. Women buy more books than men. Romance readers are voracious. Before I started writing, I read a book a day.

Not only do romance readers buy and read a lot of books, we read widely. We read outside the romance genre. We read men, maybe more than men do! Male authors can’t afford to disregard the opposite sex so easily. Any male author who insults women—especially romance readers—is walking on thin ice.

YA author Dan Krokos, who is young and handsome and just swimming in a sea of lady authors, the poor guy, tumblred his thoughts about girl books vs. boy books. Along with some fuzzy claims about boys not reading, and YA having 95% female protagonists, he says this:

7. Boys like fantasies too. Don’t get it twisted: We want to be the hero. There aren’t many books at that age where we can be the hero.

8. Pretending boys and girls aren’t different, and don’t like different things, is, quite frankly, weird.

I’m with him on boy fantasies, and I agree with point #8. But what about this number crunch of YA bestsellers done by Stacked? According to the data, male authors and male protagonists dominate the lists. By all indications, “boy” books are doing well. I don’t doubt that there are more female YA authors/characters, but I’m unconvinced of the lady takeover crisis. Maybe women (the primary readers of YA, I imagine) blog more. YA romance is also popular with romance readers. We’re voracious, remember?

Head and shoulders image of Madonna with text reading: "Girls can wear jeans and cut their hair short, Wear shirts and boots, Because it's okay to be a boy. For a boy to look like a girl is degrading, Because you think being a girl is degrading" (Madonna, "What It Feels Like For A Girl" quoting from Ian McEwan's "Cement Garden")

Let’s talk about gender essentialism. Yes, men and boys shy away from girl cooties books because of sexism. It’s undeniable. Girls are encouraged to like princesses and pink. Boys aren’t. Society influences our tastes a great deal, but sexuality isn’t just a social construct. If it were, no one would be gay. Boys and girls, heterosexual or otherwise, develop natural preferences that probably affect their reading choices.

A recent post at Book Riot criticized the romance genre’s mantra of “by women, for women, about women.”

In my opinion, there’s a disproportionate focus on gender in romance, largely because of the statement that they’re “for women.” But the fact is, there are gender issues in EVERY GENRE.

As for the “female fantasy” bullcrap, that relies on the assumption that women and men want different things. But do they really? We all want to love someone and be loved, to belong somewhere, to be understood and valued. And we also would all like to have amazing sex. So far I’m not seeing anything particularly “feminine” about these so-called fantasies.

I think that readers of all ages seek out characters they can relate to and identify with. They want characters like themselves, or like the people they wish they were. Many of the heroes in romance and YA are fantasy figures, brooding bad boys or powerful alphas. Can the average male reader measure up?

Women have the same trouble with female sex objects. If a character’s main role in the story is to look hot, get rescued, and fall onto her back, we’re not impressed. We’re not surprised, but we’re not impressed. The classic Bond girl functions to pump up the hero’s masculinity. I can’t relate to (or compete with) Megan Fox bent over a motorcycle. Both men and women identify with flawed characters, not sexed-up perfection. We relate to characters with depth, intelligence and real personalities.

Actress Megan Fox in cutoff denim shorts, a black tank top, and black boots. She is draped over a motorcycle: the shot is from the side and a bit behind her, emphasizing her bare thighs and her rear.

It’s been said many times that romance readers relate to the heroine and desire the hero. Plain Jane meets Hottie McHot. He’s a Navy SEAL, a vampire, a billionaire. Sometimes all three. That’s not even a joke. While the heroine can be average or even “mousy,” the hero is usually tall, strong and good-looking. One of the few male romance readers I know once said that the heroes always have big dicks. He enjoyed imagining himself as the well-endowed hero, while many female readers imagine themselves as the heroine.

Which is not to say that we all like the same things or read the same way. I don’t think men can easily identify with desert sheikhs or billionaires, and they probably don’t want to identify with controlling jerks. It may be titillating for women to read about obsessive, dangerous men who won’t take no for an answer. I’m wondering if the borderline-abusive hero who gives punishing kisses holds any appeal for (heterosexual) male readers.

Real by Katy Evans strikes me as another type of story straight guys wouldn’t appreciate. I haven’t read it, but someone I follow on Goodreads did. She quoted detailed descriptions of the hero’s hunky body. His sweaty muscles. His superior buttocks. The focus on physical attributes suggests a shallow, fantasy-object sort of hero. Which is sort of ironic, considering the title.

Cover of the novel Real, by Katy Evans. Torso of a man wearing an open black hoodie and very low-slung jeans. You can see the top of a star tattoo just above his pubic bone.

Luckily, there are many types of heroes in romance. Respectful, hard-working heroes. Law officers and geeky professors and single dads. Good men. Real men.

As usual, I’m not quite sure what conclusion I’ve come to. Men and women like different things. Neither relate to perfect fantasy figures. Can we meet somewhere in the middle, or should we go our separate ways?

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13 Responses to Sex, Books and Gender Roles: Guest Post

  1. I’m out of date now, but when my son was younger, I did get frustrated by trips to the bookstore. In the older YA section, the tables and set pieces were very much geared towards covers and designs that would appeal to girls—the colors, the hair, the dresses—Gossip Girl and its clones, for example.

    Now I’m a reader, and it didn’t take much effort for me to dig deeper and find books in the shelves that would catch his attention. But for parents who aren’t readers and boys who see this kind of section which is not designed for them, I’m sure it could have been different.

    Do I think this is the most important issue when it comes to book selling and publishing? No. There’s lots that’s problematic. But my boy did seem to jump from younger YA (which wasn’t so gendered, maybe still isn’t) to older books in a way that my daughter didn’t. Was that just individual differences? I don’t know. No one can know, I suppose.

    That said, there are still a ton of boy heroes, but you have to know the literature, not walk into Chapters and look at the displays. (If the older YA section is still the same!)

    I don’t know how to square these displays at Canada’s biggest (only) book chain with the numbers from Stacked either.

    Anyway, I know this was a small part of your post, which I enjoyed reading. But I was reminded of those bookstore trips of old.

    • Ah, I’ve noticed the same thing in the YA stacks at bookstores and can totally see how it would be a problem for boys. In my library, the YA section is much less “girl” focused. I guess stores could use separate shelves for girl book and boy books. Some authors advocate for unisex covers, in YA and romance. I don’t really like that idea, either, though I’m not sure why.

      In my day, we all read Stephen King at age 12! There was Judy Blume and Sweet Valley High and Sweet Dreams, but no big YA section that I can remember.

  2. Ridley says:

    This post explains why I don’t get defensive when people claim romance is “porn for women.”

    For a lot of readers, it absolutely is.

    • For what kinds of readers, though? Even those who imagine themselves as the heroine and/or prefer male fantasy object heroes are reading for more than the sole purpose of arousal. I think.

      • Ridley says:

        Well, they’re not reading for the characters or the prose. Otherwise we wouldn’t constantly hear about “not identifying” with black/lesbian/three dimensional heroines. I don’t think people need to have a hand in their pants to be reading primarily for erotic fulfillment.

      • Ros says:

        I think they can be reading for emotional fulfilment rather than always/only erotic fulfilment.

        Mostly I don’t like ‘romance is porn for women’ because that role is already taken by actual porn.

  3. @Ridley I don’t know about that. I’ve read some erotic romances that I didn’t find sexy, but I enjoyed them anyway because I liked the characters, prose, romance etc. That said, I want the sex to be a turn-on. I still care about quality and identifying with the characters, even when I’m looking for “erotic fulfillment” on some level.

    As far as who we with identify with and why…that’s such a complicated thing. I often wonder why I’d rather read f/f than m/m. I assume that most m/m readers like the idea of two men together, but can’t imagine falling in love with a woman. Perhaps some readers are comfortable as long as the object of desire is a man, and others (like me) prefer a female heroine “placeholder.”

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  6. Liz Mc2 says:

    I don’t really care whether men like romance, although I wish they (and women) would stop denigrating it in sexist ways. I also don’t like the way men who read romance are often celebrated as if that somehow validates the taste/preferences of women who read it. I agree that we don’t need them to be OK.

    I think romance deals with “female” fantasies, as long as we understand that that doesn’t mean *all* women will share the same fantasies: it reflects/represents fantasies shared by many women, sure–you have to hit a certain common denominator to sell books, perhaps. But there are plenty of women who don’t read romance, and romance readers who don’t like some of the popular fantasies it offers, and readers who are hard pressed to find some of their desires/fantasies represented in the genre (try finding a dominant woman, or, as you know, f/f romance). So I don’t entirely agree with the Book Riot piece, but if she means that we (by which I mean people in general) tend to talk about fantasy in really gender-stereotyped and sweeping ways, I think she has a point.

    I had real problems with Krokos’ comments for similar reasons as the blogger you linked to above. Yes, there are broad gender differences in reading, but to say “pretending otherwise is silly” and “it won’t change soon” seems to say we should just accept sexism. How much of these preferences are social, how much natural? It’s awfully hard to say when we begin gender-differentiating children at birth (or before). It’s like he’s saying “Why bother trying to change? Don’t even offer boys ‘girl’ books.” My son and his friend devoured the Hunger Games series a few years ago. It didn’t seem to faze them that it had a female lead. Although it’s also true that the focus of many popular YA books isn’t so appealing to him, and he’s starting to read “adult” fantasy and mysteries more.

    I’m not sure of my point, either, expect that I think it’s always good to remember that while certain statements about “men vs. women” may be generally true, when you look at specific individuals, there is far more variety. And that I don’t think we should turn statements about gender difference into self-fulfilling prophecies.

    Thanks for this very thought-provoking post, Jill!

    • About “female” fantasies…of course they vary but I do think there is some basic truth in both the Book Riot piece and Dan Krokos’ comments. Even though they say opposite things, and I read both shaking my head in disagreement! What I fundamentally believe is that heterosexual men and women desire/fantasize about the opposite sex and tend to identify with characters of our own sex. Same goes for teens and kids to a lesser extent. Which doesn’t mean women can’t relate to male characters or desire female characters or any other combination of things. But the core romance setup (sympathetic heroine, desirable hero) works for most.

      Funny, I just had a conversation with my daughter and nephew, who are both 9 and love to read the same books. They read Harry Potter and Wimpy Kid etc. My daughter recently read a girls’ series called The Dork Diaries. She couldn’t get enough of these books, maybe because they are so very girly. My nephew won’t touch them–of course. I asked him why not, and he said they were girl books. I pointed out that my daughter reads “boy” books, and they both replied “It’s not the same.”

      Later we talked about The Hunger Games, which I agree appeals to boys and girls. But that strikes me as pretty rare, and the problem remains. Which is why it’s good to have these conversations even though there is no easy answer.

      Thanks all!!

  7. sonomalass says:

    Good, thought-provoking post. When my kids were growing up, there were certain books they all liked — mostly fantasy. The Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander — a male protagonist, but a strong female who was often smarter and more capable than he was. The Chronicles of Narnia, which has the best male-femal protagonist balance I can think of. Edward Eager has both, too, and Susan Cooper and Madeline L’Engle. The Oz books, while dated and problematic, have dominant girl characters, but no romance and plenty of male characters in the picture. But when it was time to move on from there, it was a lot easier for the boys to find fantasy and science fiction with male protagonists than for the girls to find strong women. The increase of YA novels with women was a welcome thing, in my view, but I don’t think there aren’t still plenty of books out there for boys. )Bookstores tend to push the “girl” books because girls buy a lot more books than boys; as you point out, Jill, girls tend to read more.) It was really when the stories became more about adults, including romantic storylines, that their tastes began to diverge — the girls liked books that focused more on the feelings and the nuances of developing relationships, while the boys got bored with too much of that. Which in my experience mirrors the difference between many women’s and men’s preferences regarding talking about relationships versus just having them/letting them happen. And yes, a lot of that is socialization.

    The thing that bugs me about the impression some people have that women (writers or characters) “dominate” a field like YA is that I think it’s just that women tend to write more for children/teens, just as we “dominate” the teaching profession for those age groups. Socialization again, to my mind. But there are plenty of great YA writers of bothy exes, and they aren’t writing exclusively their own go gendered points of view, either. And some of the perceived dominance here is, as in many fields, actually just an increase in women’s writing and female protagonists that is redressing an imbalance that has existed for many years.

    Romance is different. There women do dominate both the reading and the writing, and I’m okay with that. Men dominate so many other genres, after all. So I agree that while it’s interesting to consider why, that’s not the same thing as looking for ways to correct it. No need to, in my opinion.

    • Thanks for your comment, Sonomalass. I didn’t think I had anything to add, but maybe I do! The part about your boys being less interested in emotions and relationships rings true for me also. My husband and I watch a lot of movies together and we often agree on them/have similar tastes. But I’ve noticed that I sometimes have to explain an emotional exchange or backstory flashback to him. “The wife died in childbirth–get it?” He’s better than I am with some intricate plot points or mechanical things, engines and weapons etc. It reminded me of a recent controversial tweet about women and chess. Is all of this social or do we have different, innate mental strengths and weaknesses? While I understand the danger of making sweeping generalizations and reinforcing gender stereotypes, I also think it’s good to acknowledge, even celebrate, some of our differences. Maybe that’s why I’m not quite on board with de-feminizing YA and romance covers. The *content* might not appeal to most boys/men and that’s okay.

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