kaigou: this is what I do, darling (3 break out of prison)
[personal profile] kaigou
[note: edited to reduce ambiguity in middle part]

Last year (has it already been that long? or am I confusing my fails?) there was the slight kerfluffle among we netizens between female romance writers of M/M fiction and gay (male) readers. This particular note was barely more than a footnote, but I saw it mentioned in a number of places: deriding stories as 'okay-gay'. The label means every character is "just fine" with homosexuality. There's no trauma, no bullying, no isolation, and friends discovering a gay character's sexuality don't respond with negatives but positives, if they even bother to give the character's sexuality that much thought. I didn't see anyone questioning this, which even at the time raised my eyebrows. I don't mean questioning whether it's okay (so to speak) to apply this label; I mean questioning the assumptions in the label.

A few months ago, CP picked up a copy of Boy's Love Manga: Essays on the Sexual Ambiguity and Cross-cultural Fandom of the Genre, edited by Antonia Levi, Mark McHarry, and Dru Pagliassotti. Most of the essays are, frankly, rather pendantic, and some just repeat what's been said plenty of places elsewhere. Some are only barely related to the genre in question, and have little more than a few names dropped of BL publishers to tie the essay into the anthology's theme. (I note all that in case you're thinking it sounds like a good read. It has its bright spots, but of fourteen essays, few really stood out to make the cost worth it.)

One of the essays had a point that's been bubbling around for awhile now; the essay is "Gay or Gei? Reading 'Realness' in Japanese Yaoi Manga", by Alexis Hall. The author interviewed female (American, from what I gather) readers of yaoi manga, asking them about whether yaoi manga is realistic, and what elements 'make' a yaoi story realistic. The essay really cries out for a longer treatment. It packs in enough implications of intersectional privilege that it could nearly carry its own book if the author chose to unpack everything she's forced to gloss in an essay that's only about nine pages long. (I had quoted, but cut because it wasn't entirely relevant to this post overall, and its inclusion seemed to be misleading people on where/what is getting discussed here.)

Anyway, here's what really popped out at me. More like, smacked me upside the head. Of the readers interviewed,
...respondents emphasize certain characteristics as belying the "realness" of the yaoi manga text... [one respondent] mentions that the lack of prejudice in yaoi is a factor that makes it unrealistic. ... While violence and anti-gay discrimination are certainly present in the lives of many gay men, it is troubling that this association goes so far as to victimize gayness that any representation that does not fall within the confines of these negative factors are viewed as "unrealistic" or "idealistic"... In other words, this response suggests that "real" gayness is reached through experience of victimization. [emphasis mine]

It's not just a message that to be realistic, a story must contain certain negative factors. It's the corollary: that without those elements of life-sucks, the story is pure fantasy, with neither value nor validity.

The bit quoted above sent me back to a connection I'd made the first time I saw a (gay, male) LJ-poster deride a M/M story as "okay gay". It's an author's note (scroll down to the very bottom) from Matthew Haldeman-Time, a gay male novelist and short story writer. His was an approach I'd seen stated so explicitly, and it made an impression on me as being a valid argument. I think it bears repeating:
...if you're looking for fiction about gay men being harassed by homophobes, you won't find it here. My point is, there's enough of that in real life; this is my corner of the Net where I can do whatever I want, and I'm not going to waste time on bigots.
[...]
Homophobia is a daily reality, yes. It should be explored and combated and dealt with, yes. And there are many great places/times/ways to do so. But that won't happen at this website. Because, frankly, in addition to being an excellent way to explore the world we live in, fiction is also a great escape. This site is where I escape into a world where being gay and being bisexual and being straight are just the same, equally accepted, equally celebrated. Because that's the way that the world should be. And will be. This site is just ahead of the game in that area. But the rest of society will catch up. One day.

Stepping away from the hot potato of okay-gay, I started thinking about analogies. What else is unrealistic in fiction? What other facets do I see in fiction that I don't see in real life, that if I were honest (or cynical?) I would have to define the story/s as 'unrealistic'?

Well, just about any representation of women, in the romance genre.

I don't mean the female characters themselves. I mean how the world treats them, because that's a straight-up (err, sorry) match to the okay-gay concept. If romance novels were realistic, I'd expect to see a lot more female characters having to deal with love interests who have many good points but are still chauvinist jackasses in other ways. I'd expect to see anything from fewer female characters with title and responsibility and a fair salary to match it, to more female protagonists made miserable by the reality that 'pretty' (to paraphrase an online essay) is the rent women pay for occupying a body labeled 'female'. I'd also expect to see a lot more weary acceptance that this is just how things are: no smack-down on the jerkwads, no final showdown in which the female protagonist lays down the law and the chauvinist pigs amend their ways.

There are additional intersections in the way 'escapist' is treated as a dirty word and so often leveled at romance fiction. (To which I've always thought: if a whole lotta people are trying to escape something, it's usually a clue to me that the 'something' is not nearly as awesome as everyone's saying it is.) I mean, I can't escape this reality; it freaking sucks to be female -- even in this day and age -- for a thousand different reasons. I know full well the reality of not-okay-female world. I live in that world. But sometimes, I just want a break, and a chance to read a story in which I see hope of a day when I won't have to live in that goddamn world.

Perhaps, then, we need to understand the possible intentions or framework of a [specific] story, before we can judge it. Can stories have differing purposes and yet be equally valid as representations of our world?

Does a story intend to educate on some level, to create a series of events, populated by a group of people, that we could see as happening in the world right now, somewhere? Could in-story incidents appear in the reader's life -- and would the story then act as a kind of template? That is, the reader can think, it's just like that story, so now I have an idea of what to expect -- even if "what to expect" amounts to "it's going to suck from here on out". Does it present the world as-it-is?

Or does a story attempt to illustrate what the world could be? To open a reader's eyes, to give the reader a chance to spend some time in a world where rape jokes are treated as offensive and unacceptable by female and male characters; where when a woman says "no," a man stops; where an interviewer doesn't look at a female candidate and privately decide she'll probably be leaving in a few years to have babies, anyway, so it's not worth hiring her now. To imagine a world -- otherwise presented as realistically as possible -- where when a friend says, "I started dating this guy," everyone else in the room reacts with the same excitement given an announcement of, "I've been seeing this girl."

Those who prize only the former will often deride the latter as 'escapist', but I think the latter is more accurately aspiration. The former have their place and their value -- there is no doubt in my mind, at least, as to that. But the latter also have a value that should not be dismissed so out-of-hand.

Beyond that, could there be an additional intersection going on here, that makes women writers writing M/M more sensitive to the same issues Haldeman-Time raises in his author's note? Could it be that women writers who take the okay-gay route are instinctively applying the same 'negative-free-zone' (or at least a 'substantially-reduced-negative zone') as what romances in the past two decades have begin to apply to women's experiences? Could it be that we need to start seeing okay-gay in the same way that many women readers describe women-centric fiction: as a template in which the concept that 'women are also human beings' is not mutually exclusive with 'reality'?

The okay-gay stories don't have prejudice or bigotry on the pages, just as there are plenty of interracial romances where the "interracial" or "multicultural" aspect of the romance is an issue (or not) only to the two lovers in question, and the rest of the world doesn't even blink. Or stories with BDSM, where characters can enjoy their personal kink and the social reaction -- if there's any at all -- is simply, 'to each his/her own' with no knee-jerk panic or uninformed mob mentality. I wouldn't blame a single person who lives with that shit daily, any kind of discriminatory shit daily, to long for the chance to curl up with a book that shows life without that additional, constant, unending, subtle (or not-so-subtle) negativity. For that matter, even as someone who doesn't live with those particular types of negativity, I still enjoy the chance to curl up with a book that shows me that those things, too, could happen without that experience of victimization.

I don't think this approach makes a story invalid, of no value, not worth reading. As Haldeman-Time put it, I think it makes the story realistic... for a world that's not yet here. But it will come. Someday. And just as we need stories that show where we are, we also need stories that show where we want to end up.
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kaigou: this is what I do, darling (Default)
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"When you make the finding yourself— even if you're the last person on Earth to see the light— you'll never forget it." —Carl Sagan

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