Is That a Man, or a Woman Wearing a Strap-On?

There seems to be a rash of blog posts lately about male characters in m/m books who are being written as if they were women with a strap-on. There is an offensive phrase being applied to these characters, and I refuse to use it because I find it unpalatable. If you don’t know the phrase, read it here. While you’re there, read Thorny‘s cogent take on the issue. He talks about one facet of that phrase and how it’s being applied.

There’s another aspect of this discussion that hasn’t been addressed. Keep reading, please.

As most of you know, I wrote a wonderfully flamboyant, cross-dressing character named Tristan. You loved him. I loved him. He swished, called everyone “dear heart”, and was slender and sexy and blond. But beneath the eye makeup and lipstick, the pencil skirts and red high heels, he was still a man.

Men and women are different, and the way men and women perceive and react to life is different.

I’ve done some reading on the subject. I’ve observed friends of both genders walking, talking, and living. I’ve discussed it with people: men and womenΒ are different, it’s a fact.

Did you see the movie “Stage Beauty” with Billy Crudup and Claire Danes? If not, I recommend it, because it explores the differences and similarities between genders in an entertaining way. Billy’s character, Ned Kynaston, was trained from birth to portray women on the Elizabethan stage at a time when females weren’t allowed to act. Ned’s feminine gestures are wildly exaggerated (and often laughably incorrect) while performing, but far more subtle off-stage. However, it didn’t matter to me if he was pretending to be female or not; I always knew he was male. It came screaming through every performance, and not just because I knew the actor was a man.

Claire’s character, Marie, flouts convention to fulfill her dream of acting on stage. When the law is changed and ladies are finally allowed to tread the boards, Ned finds himself ousted and confused. After playing female so long, he’s forgotten how to be a man. But actually, he was still male. He’d simply forgotten how toΒ act as a man. Off-stage, his maleness was apparent.

It’s a movie. It has the pat, happy ending. But it raised a lot of questions that didn’t get satisfactorily answered. What fascinated me was the study of the differences between men and women.

In many ways, there are none. In many ways, the genders are the same. There will always be extremes in either sex–the feminine man, the butch woman–and a rainbow in between. But at bottom, no matter how much a queen, a man is still a man.

That being said *sighs and trudges on*… consider transgenders. When a woman is born in a man’s body, that person exhibits the feelings and reactions of a female. They even do so after years of being told it’s wrong by well-meaning family and friends! The same is true for a man born in a woman’s body. That tells me there are some very basic differences between men and women that not even puberty can change. That’s a sobering thought, isn’t it? Not even hormones can convince a female born in a male’s body that she’s male.

As writers, it is our job to portray those wonderful similarities and differences accurately. Most female writers in the m/m genre do a good job of writing men (even when they swish and carry a purse), but some few never quite manage to get it right and I pick up on it every time. I can’t even tell you why! I just know the characters are WRONG. The nasty phrase that drives Thorny nuts applies to those characters: the ones that don’t ring true, the ones that aren’t believable, the ones that appear to be women wearing strap-ons.

If you think this post was easy to write… well, you’re wrong. It was a bitch. I hope I managed to make my point without offending anyone, and I hope it’s clear enough to understand. Like Jazz, Thorny’s husband, I’m gender fluid (and I still thank them for that post because it opened my eyes to something I’d been unaware of!).

Do my characters, both male and female, ring true? Talk to me. I want to know, because I’m always trying to improve, and as I am not intersex, I will never quite understand the opposite gender in the same way someone born that way does.

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About Fenraven

Fenraven happily lives in south Florida, where it is really hot most of the year. Find him on Twitter, Google +, and Facebook by searching on 'fenraven'.
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26 Responses to Is That a Man, or a Woman Wearing a Strap-On?

  1. lly1205 says:

    Have you read A Cue for Treason? Your post reminded me of it!

  2. Isa says:

    I have read a book that I felt the character was female and not male. I will have to reread it now after reading yours and Thorny’s post. I thought the author had written a good story but I kept having to remind myself the character was male and not female. I don’t think it was because of how he looked but because of his actions and his interests. It was like reading a m/f romance novel where the woman was happy to stay at home and take care of her guy and cook, clean and sew and her mate was the protecter and provider.

    I don’t have any problems with your characters. I really liked Tristan and wished we could learn more about him. I felt he was comfortable in his own skin no matter how he was dressed.

    I like my characters to be equal to each other. It doesn’t matter if they are the alpha males or the nerds or very femine men or a combination. I want them to have a backbone and be strong enough to stand up for themselves and to their partners. That doesn’t mean they can’t show emotions and need help sometimes. I have a hard time with some BDSM books because they don’t leave that part of the relationship in the bedroom. They live that relationship outside of the bedroom and then it becomes an unequal relationship to me.

    Thanks for posting. You know I enjoy your writing. But go back and reread your sentence about Jazz. It sounds to me like he is gender fluid when it’s Thorny.

    • It’s possible I got it wrong. If so, my apologies to Jazz and Thorny. I hope one of them will correct me, if so.

      I love that everyone, male or female, is finally feeling free enough to be who they really are. When the subject comes up about male characters in m/m not seeming quite right, I always think of two guys who are FBI agents in a first book of a popular series. In the first few pages, their banter was amusing. But that banter went on. And on and on and on to a ludicrous point. It turned into something that set my teeth on edge. Suddenly, I was thinking, “This is how women pick at each other. They can’t let go, they just keep at it.”

      That’s when I tossed the book aside. AJ read this book, too. I asked him to tell me how it ended because I couldn’t bear to read it anymore. The way these two ‘guys’ related to each other rang false to me. Turned out, the plot was really interesting. Too bad the MCs destroyed it for me.

  3. HBIC says:

    I’ll admit to using the phrase. It makes no difference to me where characters fall on any masculine-feminine “scale” anyone cares to use; I’ve read some kick-ass characters that run the whole gamut, and I have no preference. There have been books, though, in which it seems the authors didn’t know how to write male-male relationships, so they wrote one side as a woman then just changed the physical attributes; it’s those books that prompted me to use the phrase. If I wanted to read m/f I would (and have – thousands of them); it’s the sheer difference in how two men relate to one another and build/maintain a romantic relationship that drew me to m/m in the first place, so it grates somewhat when what is supposed to be a male character is written more as (to borrow your phrase) a woman with a strap-on. Sometimes I can’t even explain what it is about a character that makes me see them that way; I’ve just read enough of both m/f and m/m by now that it’s fairly obvious.

    I’m not sure I’m articulating this the way I intend to, so I’ll give a recent example. In the beginning of this particular book we have two men; one of them is a little on the… not-really-effeminate-but-less-macho side while the other is a “macho” guy, but they’re both very definitely men. They meet, become friends, and are still men; about halfway in, though, when the romance really kicks off the less macho guy kind of morphs into a girl – not just a girl, either, we’re talking 80s-bodice-ripper swooning maiden in some ways. The other (and previously straight – yes, it’s a “gay for you” book) MC even thinks at one point how, except for a lack of large boobs, it’s just like being with a woman. It was almost like the author just couldn’t bring herself to write an alpha guy falling for another man, so she just turned the other man into a woman mid-story. I guess I never thought of the phrase as offensive because it never occurred to me that it even could be applied to a real person.

    • It’s only offensive when the phrase is applied to effeminate men.

      I don’t see guys like Tristan as anything other than men with their own wonderful style. πŸ™‚

      You understood I was talking about male characters written by women who just don’t quite come across as men. Not all women can write men well. They are, after all, female, and there is skill involved in portraying men and women in a way that engages the reader. Not all writers are created equal. ;/

      • HBIC says:

        Ah… I’ve never used it that way since I look at men as men no matter how they dress or act, but I’ll likely stop using the phrase anyway; there are others (yours is good, for instance πŸ™‚ ) that are maybe less inflammatory. It’s not something I use frequently or anything – easy enough to change.

        The odd thing is, in some of the stories this topic brings to mind, the authors have written one of the men well – it seems like the problem comes in when they try to write a second man then build a relationship between the two. It’s as though they feel the need to have one strong person and one weaker person in a relationship, and since they don’t have a woman to be the weaker in the pairing, they write one of the men as the “damsel in distress” so to speak. KWIM?

        • Yeah, I know what you mean. That’s a writer who can’t get away from the stereotypical m/f couple. They don’t get there are other ways for lovers to relate to one another.

          I tend to like guys who meet on equal ground. Both are strong in their own way, and both also have weaknesses and flaws. No one’s perfect.

          For instance, let’s take Cooper and Gray. Gray is older and taller, but Cooper’s had experience at his young age that matured him fast, making him a compelling partner for anyone. Despite the age difference, these two click and I don’t see either one as ‘the woman.’

          It’s very possible in RL relationships that partners fall into unconscious roles, playing out the part they think society has assigned to them. How many women take the subservient role in their relationship because it’s what’s expected of them? And if two men decide to live together and one takes on a feminine role, is it because it comes naturally to him or because society demands it of him? Yup, very interesting indeed!

      • HBIC says:

        It is interesting to think about. I have seen relationships in which the woman has allowed herself to be *put* into a role (whether by her husband’s request/demand or just because that’s what the women of her family have accepted for generations), and they sadden me a little because I wonder who they would have been if the choice had been theirs. One of these was my lifetime best friend (literally – there are pics of us kissing over my first birthday cake) until she met the man she married; he didn’t like me and slowly managed to work her out of my life. OTOH, some people (other women, especially) have gotten kind of condescending upon learning I’m “just” a wife and mother; they assume I’m doing what I was told and don’t realize it’s a role I chose and actually had to fight for. Maybe society views me and others like me, male or female, as the weaker partner in a relationship, but I think, as long as we have chosen those roles and didn’t have them forced upon us by anyone else, then we’re still equal partners. I don’t feel I’m subservient to anyone in my house… except one of the dogs, but that’s because she rules the place with an iron paw. πŸ™‚

        • Which raises another question: What is strength?

          I am suddenly reminded of Melanie in “Gone With the Wind.” She spoke quietly, she deferred to almost everyone, all of the time, yet there’s no denying that woman had strength in spades! One of my favorite characters of all time. πŸ™‚ Scarlet got the attention, but Melanie was the soft-spoken rod of steel at her back.

      • HBIC says:

        That’s one of my all-time favorite movies (and one of three instances I’ve liked a movie better than the book); the FOX Theatre occasionally shows it, and I had the chance to attend one of the showings – truly amazing to see it on the big screen and in that setting. I agree that Melanie was by far the stronger of the two women. Scarlett seemed to need the attention of as many men as possible to validate her self-worth until she was forced into being strong enough to keep Tara viable. Even then she fell back into her old ways later; she may have had the attention of the men around her, but Melanie had their respect.

        I think in a lot of cases society sees physical strength as the standard to measure by even though, IMO, mental/emotional strength is the more difficult to achieve and maintain.

        • I think you’re right. Society sees size and muscles as strength, and that’s certainly one way to look at it. I prefer mental and emotional strength; it’s far more interesting. πŸ™‚

  4. A.M.B. says:

    Interesting. I am not familiar enough with this genre to weigh in on the specifics, but I can say that I balk at the idea that men and women can’t write characters of the opposite sex. I think there are more similarities than differences between the sexes, but our culture imposes differences on us. Still, I’ll admit that I have on occasion found the female characters of male authors unconvincing. BTW, which novel is Tristan in?

  5. Elin Gregory says:

    The thing that REALLY upset me about the post that kicked off this discussion is the judgemental tone of the implication that there’s only one way to be gay and the hurt it caused in the gay community. Not only is it incredibly insulting but it’s ridiculous.

    As for the application to writing – of course a woman doesn’t think the same way a man thinks. I’ve been married for 35 years and that has been proved to me everyday. Of course a straight woman hasn’t experienced the same kind of discrimination as a gay man – she faces her own particular problems but they are quite different. If a woman, gay or straight, wants to write men, gay or straight, or a man, gay or straight, wants to write women, gay or straight, all they can do is their best to approach their subject with care and respect and write from the heart. I’ve been writing male POV stories for 40 years, I love writing men of all shapes and kinds and would HATE to think that I’m insulting, misrepresenting or hurting the very people I aim to celebrate.

    Um – any chance of a copy of Lavender Rose? I have a Tristan too [name chosen for the Cornish connection] but I’d love to read about yours.

    • I’ll email it to you. πŸ™‚

      I missed the original post. I only caught Thorny’s response to it.

      The thing is, we’re writers. We imagine just about everything we write about, and while we do research things we don’t know, places we’ve never been, and often talk to people who can give us a freaking clue, most of it springs from our imagination. I’ve been known to draw buildings so I can properly describe them in a story. I research like mad! I want to get every detail right, no matter how small.

      Men and women share so many emotions and physiological responses, I don’t think it’s difficult to place one’s self in the other gender’s mind, especially for sex. Our equipment may be different, but our reaction to stimulus is probably very close. I happen to know two men writing erotica under female pen names. They do a pretty good job getting it right. πŸ™‚

  6. Teddypig says:

    I use that phrase all the time. I consider it a descriptor used by readers when talking about stories not a specific gender politics issue or “real life” issue but one of describing a readers reaction to what they suspect is the writers intent.

    In this case simply switching pronouns in a straight romance to make it suddenly a gay romance. Which you have to admit can make for an awkward read.

    That’s where I have always heard the phrase used properly so that is where I keep the level of discussion at.

    So I look at this whole thing other conversation on the propriety of the term as some people want to make the discussion of gay romance political in any way they can to create this drama over words and phrases and motivations they may not even understand and force it into some type of characterization of the readers insidious privilege politics and other people are simply using a well known term in discussing the quality of the writing or what they have read.

    I tend to keep it simple and not toss around concepts of deep dark phobia or any other sort of hidden agenda when I see people simple trying to express their honest reaction to a book.

    • It definitely depends on how you apply the phrase. If it’s used to describe males who are feminine in gesture/appearance, I find it objectionable. They are not, after all, women.

      If it’s applied to characters in m/m books that are supposed to be men but but are written in a way that makes the reader think of women, then it’s descriptive. Whether or not it’s acceptable in such cases, I leave up to the individual.

      Thanks for commenting!

      • Teddypig says:

        I have never ran across anyone using that term in reference to a person so that would be insulting…

        But for a book it makes it easy to figure out what the reader’s objection were concerning what they had read.

        Someone using that term as shorthand does communicate pretty clearly what the issue was and we can then discuss from there. I find that useful in all honesty.

        • I agree. That phrase makes it instantly clear what is meant.

          I kind of like mine, too: women wearing a strap-on. It’s amusing. Although I suppose women who wear strap-ons may find it offensive.

          Hey, any ladies out there who can confirm or deny? πŸ™‚

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