Axes & Allies

So it seems there’s been another kerfuffle in the blogosphere. A Facebook post, which was taken down before I could read it, prompted a broad and complicated discussion about issues ranging from the objectification of gay men to the behaviours required or not required of queer allies. It led to this post over at the Prism Book Alliance, and subsequent comments.

On one level, I very much agree with the substance of the post, which is that you don’t get to say someone isn’t a proper ally just because they don’t do the sort of stuff you think an ally should do. Not everyone goes on marches or lobbies MPs, and not everybody is in a position to do so. And there is an extent to which I question the value of an ally investing their time in telling other people they aren’t allowed to call themselves allies.

That said, when I think about it in more detail, I find the whole concept of self-defining as an ally a little problematic. Obviously, it’s not my place to tell people how they can feel, or what they can call themselves, or who they can identify with, or who they can feel they support, or who they can feel supports them, but I think there is a genuine danger in making your response to someone else’s issues part of your identity.

As ever, this is a personal post and I’m writing from a personal perspective, and so I’m actually going to try to avoid talking about queer issues here. Instead, I want to talk about why, although I do my best not to be a dick to people who are marginalised on axes along which I am not myself marginalised, I consciously avoid self-defining as an ally.

People who are familiar with my blog will probably have noticed that I like to start my posts with “the core of my argument is this thing that seems irrelevant”. For this post, the thing that seems irrelevant is Eddie Izzard’s passport. For those of you who aren’t aware, Izzard is a transvestite British comedian, famous for not doing television, and for a slightly peculiar acting career  that includes Shadow of the Vampire, Mystery Men and, recently, Hannibal. Back in the 90s, I read an interview with Eddie Izzard in which he mentions that, on his passport, he does not list his occupation as ‘comedian’ because, as he put it, “if people stop laughing, I’m not”. Obviously your mileage may vary when it comes to comedy, but I think the idea of an identity existing only as a series of moment-to-moment choices is a powerful and important one, and very strongly applicable to the desire to be an ally in a social justice environment.

Put simply, I think an ally is not something you are, it’s something you do. But crucially, it’s something that exists only in the doing of it. I’m absolutely not saying that you don’t get to call yourself an ally just because you don’t go on protests or start petitions or hang out on the right tumblrs. What I’m saying is, no action can confer a status that exists beyond that action. If someone uses gay as a pejorative, and you call them out for it, you’re being an ally. If someone makes a causal generalisation about an ethic group and you correct them, you’re being an ally. If you teach your children not to be sexist or islamophobic, you’re being an ally. But those actions justify themselves and reward themselves, and they don’t change who you are, or grant you any special rights or privileges.

When I was younger, I hung out with a lot of socially insecure nerdboys who strongly self-defined as feminists.  To be honest, I was totally one of them. We all loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer. We all really liked to read fantasy novels with strong female characters in them. And we, all of us, at one time or another, treated actual women like shit. It is very easy and very dangerous to believe that doing particular things gives you Points, and that having those Points makes you better than people who don’t have those Points, no matter how much Points-negative or Points-neutral behaviour you otherwise engage in. I am mildly ashamed of how long it took me to realise that it doesn’t matter how offended you are by chainmail bikini fantasy art or how articulately you can call out sexism in other people if you won’t respect the personal space of a girl at a party.

I try very hard to avoid self-defining as an ally because I am extremely aware of how easily it can become an excuse for ignoring the needs and wishes of the people you claim to be allied with.

This sort of brings us back to the difficult question of objectification, appropriation and allyship in m/m. I should probably reiterate that I’m not telling people how to think, how to feel, or how to live their principles. A great many m/m writers and m/m readers have come out and said that they feel the reason they read and write m/m is because they want to normalise queer relationships, and to show they are as valid as heterosexual relationships. I have no reason to believe that these people are anything but sincere (and since it’s also why I read and write m/m, it would be deeply hypocritical of me to do so). But this whole discussion was started because a man stood up and said that he personally felt objectified by the community, and I have no right to assume that he was insincere either.

There is a slightly bullshit concept in management called “the mirror and the window” which is basically that you have be sure to get the right balance between looking “out of the window” at other people and “in the mirror” at yourself.  I have no idea how this applies to business, but I think – from the point of view an online community – it means getting the right balance between listening to what other people say and reflecting in good faith on what they’ve said. Again, I have no doubt that the people who say they want to normalise queer relationships actually mean it, but some people do feel objectified by some aspects of the community, and I feel it behoves us to look at ourselves and ask why.

I strongly believe that m/m fiction has a very important place in promoting LGBT rights, but I cannot put my hand on my heart and say that I think the m/m community is completely free from objectification or fetishisation.

Brandilyn, over at the Prism Book Alliance, says:

Honestly, I do not read this genre for the sex scenes (I know, gasp!). I read it for the stories, the love, and the friends I have made. I do not care whom they are sleeping with.

Once again, I have every faith that Brandilyn means exactly what she says, but looking at the actual shape of the m/m genre – even down to the very basic fact that it’s generally called m/m rather LGBT or LGBTQ or QUILTBAG – I can’t quite believe that it’s true of every reader. If there was not, on some level, a large part of the community that was primarily interested in reading stories about two hot boys kissing then f/f would be as popular as m/m, and it isn’t. And, by a huge margin. I can only really share my own data here but my m/m title has sold more than ten times as well as my f/f. And, of course, it’s possible that my m/m is ten times better or ten times less niche, but the prevailing consensus in the industry is that f/f just doesn’t sell.

I genuinely cannot reconcile the idea that readers of LGBT fiction are blind to the genders of the protagonists of their love stories with the industry reality that well over 90% of LGBT romance is m/m, and a very particular type of m/m. By my limited understanding of the market, the overwhelmingly popular books in the genre are about kink, college boys, shifters or soldiers, and involve conventionally attractive white protagonists. I do not think there is anything wrong with people liking what they like, and reading what they read, but these trends do not to me reveal a market that is primarily interested in challenging normative ideas about romantic relationships. It certainly doesn’t look like a market which is incompatible with material that could be seen as objectifying or fetishising.

When you are trying to draw conclusions about the preferences of a market, you have to base those conclusions on what the market does, not on what it says. Ulysses, in the comments to Brandilyn’s post, observes that:

While [straight women who write m/m] may have a distinct preference for hot men on their covers (which is, after all, merely a marketing technique, and one that works) to point an accusing finger and cry “objectifer!” is overdramatic and beside the point.

The thing is, you can’t divorce how a book is marketed from how it is read. It is certainly true that you can’t draw conclusions about the writers of m/m fiction from what people put on the covers, but you absolutely can draw conclusions about the readers.  When we were putting out Glitterland, I very strongly didn’t want to have a dude on the cover, but my publishers informed me it had to, or it wouldn’t sell. I have no particular problem with this, but it tells us something very clear about the market the book was selling into.

Putting conventionally attractive people on something in order to attract other people to it by playing on their romantic fantasies or sexual desires is the very definition of objectification. I’m not saying we should pillory people for doing it, but nor should we pillory people for admitting they are bothered by it. Video games, comic books and fantasy novels all regularly feature highly sexualised images of women with enormous breasts and waists thinner than their necks for marketing reasons. This is generally recognised as problematic (at least by people who care about that kind of thing) and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with readers and writers expressing similar concerns about the portrayal of gay men in m/m.

Of course, this kind of thing gets very complicated because identity politics is always complicated, especially because different people find different things offensive, and have a tendency to factionalise quite strongly over what it is and isn’t appropriate to be offended by. For example, I have a (straight, female) friend who really likes highly sexualised fantasy art. She finds it empowering and liberating, and it makes her feel sexy to consume media that has images of sexy women in it. It is obviously not my place to tell her that she is being A Bad Feminist and Doing Woman Wrong but, equally, fondness for images that other people find offensive in no way negates the offence that other people take at those images.

The fact that some gay men do not find the context or presentation of current m/m fiction problematic does not change the fact that others do. And, perhaps more importantly it does not abnegate the responsibility that the community (particularly those members of the community who are keen to see themselves as allies) has to take questions of appropriation and objectification seriously. All of us, particularly those of us who write about members of groups to which we do not belong, have a responsibility to treat one another with respect, and to sincerely reflect on our own behaviour as it affects others.

M/m fiction, and LGBT fiction in general, has the capacity to be extremely powerful in promoting LGBT rights, particularly in promoting the normalisation of same-sex relationships. But this does not mean that it is never possible for m/m fiction or LGBT fiction to be harmful, marginalising or undermining. M/m fiction has the potential to be a tremendous force for good, but the very fact that some of the people it is supposed to be good for feel marginalised and excluded by it suggests that the genre as a whole has some way to go before it lives up to that potential.


7 Responses to Axes & Allies

  1. willaful says:

    The argument is reminding me of people who argue that writers should be okay with pirating because of the “exposure.” I think there are very legitimate reasons to be against DRM and to not worry about bring pirated from the author’s point of view, but being told that you shouldn’t mind it because it’s really good for you is just insulting.

    I didn’t see the original post that spurred this, but it sounds like a similar situation. A person should be able to talk about feeling objectified without being told it’s for their own good.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Oh gosh DRM arguments are always terrifying – from both directions, I mean pro and anti, but it’s a good analogy because it involves a lot of people telling other people what they should think and feel about things 🙂

      I didn’t see the post either, in all honesty, because I am scared of Facebook, but I saw a lot of the resultant discussion. I think it’s one of those things that comes up every now and again with regards to m/m, and it turned out I had 2 cents so I decided to just randomly throw them out there 🙂

  2. sofia says:

    Hi Alexis

    More food for thought as usual.

    I read fiction because I like it, if I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t read. As an additional benefit both m/f and m/m expose me to situations I wouldn’t’ t otherwise encounter. This has made me a better person as I feel I can empathise more and my worldview has adjusted itself to my new perceptions. This enables me to walk the talk when needs arise. However as you said, this does not mean that I am not put off my some m/f contributions which totally misrepresent me as a woman. With m/m I’m more at a distance but even here I find misrepresentation of women which bugs me and I also see issues where were I gay I would take issue with. I also notice that the beauty culture reigns supreme in m/m as well as it does in m/f, and this totally misrepresents all of us both men and women. Probably m/m has the same challenges as m/f does, finding the right balance between quality and saleibility, reality and utopia, real people and super heroes.

    Wishing you a Good Easter.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Yay, I like food – but, yes, you’re very right that m/f and m/m are subject to some similar issues, they’re just spun through a differently gendered blender I think 🙂 And it’s very easy in, any genre, to find examples of characters you feel misrepresent, regardless of the wider context. Naturally I have more distance with m/f, so I tend to be, in general, more comfortable with it because, as you say, it’s less personal. I don’t know how problematic that is though, or if it is a problem, or just the nature of the beast.

      • sofia says:

        Food and books being two great loves in my life, I do tend to compare them or mention them together. My synapses at work probably.

        Nature of the beast I would say. But hey as long as we know that the beast exist we can then act accordingly.


  3. Wow. I’m reading through your blog a bit obsessively right now, and I really loved what you said here. The part about your relationship to feminism and self-labelling as an ally really helped me understand some discomfort I’ve been feeling about my own role re. gay rights and m/m. Life is complicated, our actions have facets, and labels are simplistic. Claiming to be an ally but making it about your own terms and preferences, while disregarding what someone in the group is saying, is problematic.

    Life would be much easier if all groups were monolithic and there was one ‘right’ way to support people. But I guess it would be a lot less interesting, too.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Gosh, no, it’s fine, thanks for the comments 🙂

      Basically … um … yes, all this 🙂

      It’s a complicated situation, full of awkward intersectionalities.

      People have sort of mentioned to me before feeling slightly discomforted in either writing or reading m/m – for me, I genuinely don’t think there’s anything inherently problematic about it, but I think it always help to take the occasional step back and think about things.

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