Saturday, January 17, 2015

Thorny terminology: the problem of heroes and heroines

In the course of writing these initial posts, I have often stumbled over two very basic terms: hero and heroine. More specifically, I have paused after typing them together, as a unit, when discussing romance protagonists in the abstract. The hero and heroine must conquer adversity. The hero and heroine reveal their love. The banal but problematic assumption underlying these kinds of sentences is that the text does, in fact, contain both a hero and a heroine.

But that’s not always the case.

While romance novels usually center on the development of a heterosexual romance, gay and lesbian romance is a small but growing subgenre within this literary landscape, and an increasing number of books in the “mainstream” market feature a same-sex romance, whether as the primary plot or perhaps a secondary one. In the subgenre of erotic romance, which traces the development of a romantic relationship through sex, we may not even be limited to two partners. In order to alert readers to the featured gender/partner permutations, many novels are marketed with designations such as MM (male-male), MMF (male-male-female), and so on. Thirty years ago these kinds of works were all but non-existent in mainstream markets. Today, self-publishing, publishers that solicit LGBT and ménage romance, and e-readers are making them accessible to an ever-broader audience.

To be sure, charges of heteronormative bias within the romance genre are far from baseless. By heteronormativity, I mean the notion that heterosexuality is the only acceptable or normal sexuality, and that other sexual expression is deviant, abnormal, unacceptable, or impossible. In the most traditional model of the romance novel, the protagonists are a man and a woman, and their union is cemented with marriage and children, or at least the promise thereof.[1]

And certainly, some heterosexist bias remains embedded in the genre. A hero might tutor a virginal heroine on sexual anatomy: “You see, little one? Your body was made to receive mine.” This sort of language treats heterosexual vaginal intercourse as natural and biologically ordained, espousing complementarity of the sexes. In some novels, particularly historicals, same-sex attraction is treated as a taboo to be spoken of in only the most elliptical terms.

A growing number of romances, however, reject heteronormativity and have been doing so, some subtly and some more explicitly, for decades.[2] This is true even of romances featuring straight protagonists developing a heterosexual relationship. It might be as simple as a heroine defending a gay relative in passing during a conversation with the hero, as Meredith does in Judith McNaught’s Paradise (1991). Or it might take the form of a secondary romance such as the one that Courtney Milan builds across three of the novels in her recent Brothers Sinister series. These and other books make a compelling case that a book can tell the story of a heterosexual relationship without asserting a heteronormative imperative.

Most of the romances I study do feature a man and a woman operating in fairly traditional gender roles.[3] I am mindful of the fact that by referring to the hero and heroine as a pair in the abstract, I risk upholding the heterosexist legacy that has been pervasive throughout the genre for decades. I plan to continue using the terms alongside the more inclusive “protagonists” because they do apply to the vast, vast majority of romances I study. Moreover, some of the tropes I analyze are overwhelmingly specific to a hero or a heroine. However, I want to make it clear that I am not using the words reflexively, and that I will be sure to give ample space to texts focused on relationships that fall outside the “one-man, one woman” model.

[1] This endpoint calls to mind the formula that concludes many French fairy tales: “Ils se marièrent et eurent beaucoup d’enfants” (“They married and had many children”). Romances often rework a classic fairy tale premise.
[2] I plan to write a separate piece on the trajectory of gay acceptance in romance novels at the level of plot, focusing on why and how that trajectory has varied across subgenres.
[3] Gender identity, gender performativity, and the prevalent trope of cross-dressing are related topics that likewise will receive their own posts.

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