Alex’s excellent article last week prompted Gutter Overlord Carol to suggest we each use this month to write about masculinity in our own particular capacity. Having been by odd coincidence right in the middle of reading The Male Brain by Louann Brizendine (a fascinating look at the physical and hormonal characteristics unique to, um, the male brain), I was totally on board with the idea.
A little while later, I found myself adrift instead. Truth is, as a genre Romance does not spend much time examining the many facets of masculinity. Men, yes. Their behaviours, habits, emotional and physical presence are all presented and dissected in detail. But the broad concept of masculinity? Not so much. Rather Romance assumes the latter from the former, and leaves it at that.
Which does NOT mean that Romance assumes there is only one way to be masculine. Yes, it’s true that the alpha male is a common feature in many novels, but that likely has more to do with narrative tension than with sociological determinism. During my tenure at the Gutter I’ve said this several times: the central fantasy of the modern Romance novel is not that women women want to be rescued, it’s that men are capable of change. Alpha men often have the most changes to make. Their development is the most dramatic, which makes for more satisfying fiction.
[In fact, the modern Romance allows –even demands — that women change too. But Romances are about emotions and relationships. And despite recent encouraging trends to the contrary, men still lag behind women when it comes to acknowledging, discussing, and owning their emotions.]
Romance is, I think, more concerned with the movement from boy to man, or at least from immaturity to maturity, than it is with delineating particular expressions of masculinity. The genre requires self-awareness, emotional understanding, and a sense of responsibility from its heroes — the same thing, in fact, it demands from its heroines. But the way that maturity looks? Is a wide open field.
Loretta Chase created one of the genre’s most memorable alpha heroes in Sebastian Ballister, Marquess of Dain, the hero of her wonderful book Lord of Scoundrels. Dain epitomizes the fan-favourite line once used to describe Lord Byron: “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”. But Chase also wrote The Devil’s Delilah, which features quiet, intellectual Jack Langdon who would rather read than talk to people. Entirely dissimilar in appearance and conduct; both entirely masculine.
Mary Balogh has done something similar, with members of the same family, even. Rannulf Bedwyn, from Slightly Wicked, resembles in looks and temperment his Viking forbears more than he does his siblings. His behaviour is often more than a little reckless. Certainly when compared to his oldest brother Wulfric, current Duke of Bewcastle. Wulf is icily cool, and always entirely proper. He appears in every book of the ‘Slightly’ series, his own title is Slightly Dangerous. Rannulf can barely stand to wear a cravat; Wulf never travels without a full retinue of servants to help with his clothes. Both are entirely masculine.
In many of Jayne Ann Krentz‘s early novels the hero was quiet, bespectacled, and often shorter than average. She’s given us alpha heroes too, of course, but she retains a fondness for the intellectual and academic, as demonstrated by Sam Stark, hero of Trust Me. Sam has an adherence to literality makes him less neurotypical than most Romance heroes, which was both a surprise and a pleasant change. And masculine.
Nora Roberts, of course, has written every kind of hero there is. Probably a dozen times. But one of her many gifts is her ability to write the guy next door. Who is smart, but not a genius; friendly, but not rock-star popular; good at his work, but not the World’s Best… whatever. Graphic novelist Ford Sawyer, from Tribute, is an excellent example of one such hero. Roberts also writes about brotherhood, and fatherhood, in a way that isn’t often matched. Beckett Montgomery, from her recent(ish) book The Next Always is an excellent example of a man deeply enmeshed in family. And by definitely and illustration, thoroughly masculine.
Then there’s J.R. Ward. The heroes of her massively popular ‘Black Dagger Brotherhood’ series are straight-up warriors: immensely strong, extremely tough, substantially short in the communication department. But they also come in every flavour of straight, gay, and bi. And once again, all of them are considered masculine, by the writer, by the readers, by the text.
Romance is criticized for its portrayals of men almost as often as for its portrayals of women, generally by people who haven’t read many, or recent, titles. ‘Idealized men’ is one of the most common complaints, which is how to tell the complainant doesn’t actually read the genre. Because modern heroes aren’t ideal, but real. They have flaws. Not made-up, job-interview type flaws designed to make the bearer even more attractive (“I’m just such a perfectionist: I can’t rest until every detail is just perfect!”), but actual issues that can get in the way of their emotional development. In Call Me Irresistable, Susan Elizabeth Phillips illuminates that growing up can be hard to do, when the charmed life of a (rich, white) golden boy Ted Beaudine encounters its first serious snags. Barbara O’Neal gives us men striving to build something good out of past disaster… in pretty much everything she writes.
‘Unrealistic’ is another charge. Which is something that has long puzzled me: what, exactly, is unrealistic? Falling in love? Freaking out about it and possibly acting like an idiot? That doesn’t seem unrealistic, it seems more like… Tuesday. Or any day, really. Because that lightning bolt impluse, that moment between being attracted and being in love, that is what the Romance genre is trying to illuminate. The particular expression of masculinity (or femininity, for that matter) by which that moment is reached is just part of the fun.
Chris Szego recommends The Male Brain, along with Brizendine’s groundbreaking earlier work, The Female Brain.