Saturday, May 25, 2013

In which I wonder why everybody has to be gorgeous to be loved

Reading E. E. Ottoman's recent fantastic post on how our books' content paints a picture of a world in which whole populations of people don't exist spurred me on to write out a few of my own thoughts on a loosely related issue: our books also, by merit of what they show and what they don't show, contain the underlying implication that only the exceptionally attractive find true love. I know that this is not a stunningly original idea, but it's one I think bears repeating and reexamining from time to time. (My apologies if this post is a little incoherent. My laptop has crashed five times during the writing of it, so I'm having a little trouble remembering what I've said in which version of the post. I'd take it as a sign, but it's pretty much par for the course these days with this machine.)

Someone will put this guy in a story and give him some love.
(Creative Commons Licensing)  
Besides containing two young, white, cisgendered males built like Olympic swimmers as heroes, it seems like most of the m/m books I read also feature the improbability of two young, white, cisgendered males built like Olympic swimmers, who are just as beautiful of face as they are of form, not only meeting but also falling in love. Now there's a lot to be said for beauty lying in the eye of the beholder (don't we all think the people we love are attractive?), the fantasy aspect of reading romance, etc., but let's be honest: how many people do you know that look like they stepped from the pages of one of our books? How many of them are in love with someone equally gorgeous--and the same kind of gorgeous? I'm willing to bet the number is pretty small. For that matter, how many of you actually find that kind of man—and only that kind of man—attractive? I'll be honest; apart from Thelma and Louise, I've never seen a movie in which I found Brad Pitt remotely attractive, but clearly plenty of other people do. I fell in love with a skinny, short, redhead in high school, then a broad-shouldered, bearded blond in college, and married a balding brunet with gorgeous blue eyes. One of my best friends' husbands is a short, tattooed Korean man; another is a tall, fit, African-American man with the prettiest smile I've ever seen; another is a significantly overweight white guy who makes fantastically expressive faces. We all think our husbands are attractive. Tastes vary in real life. They vary a lot less in fiction, it seems. And that creates a view of the world, like cannibalistic llamas, that simply isn't true or representative of reality.

Yup, totally thinking about eating my young. Can't you tell?
(Creative Commons Licensing)
In real life, everybody—especially women—knows that we as a society place a huge value on appearance and attractiveness. We have a very specific idea of what a woman should look like. We're creating a very specific idea of what a man should look like. And we're definitely, by our choice of heroes, intimating that only people who fit those images get the guy at the end of the story. One of the things linked to these thoughts, perhaps oddly, is my current pregnancy. I'm 32 weeks along with my first child, and I've been sort of stunned to discover how very much this process, which I've always thought of as a womanly thing, is the polar opposite of "feminine" by modern Western standards. A good friend of mine just had a baby in April, and she struggled with the uncontrollable changes that made her into what she had been trained over the last thirty years not to be. Consequently, her entire pregnancy, she felt "gross—I'm always belching and scratching my belly in public." That's not to mention the constant farting, the inability to cross her legs, the reduction of high heels to flats, the loss of her size 0 waist, the increase in body hair, or the other delightful side effects of carrying a baby. Personally, none of those things bother me; I've never been an overtly feminine woman, and most of the time I just don't really give a shit what people think about the way I look. But it did make me stop and think all over again about what women are told about who we are—not our roles, but at our core. Any girl over the age of eight who stops to think about it for two seconds can probably describe exactly what she's "supposed" to look like, since the message is pervasive for anyone who reads magazines, watches TV, goes to movies, looks at billboards, or interacts with people who do any of these things. We're supposed to be elegant, delicate, thin but just the right amount of curvaceous (especially in places that aren't naturally curvy unless you're carrying some body fat), hairless except for our carefully arched eyebrows and the hair we've used a vast amount of time and product to make appear as though we've used no time or product at all, pale skinned but not too pale, existing entirely without embarrassing bodily functions (my husband still chooses to live under the delusion that girls don't poop, though after 8 years of sharing a bathroom with me, not to mention growing up with two sisters, the evidence is overwhelmingly to the contrary), ankles crossed, skinny legs, no hips... In other words, we should strive to look essentially like a prepubescent girl for our entire adult lives. Once we hit puberty and start to look like women, we should be filled with shame and try to pretend that embarrassing process never happened, so we shave off all that new hair, try to exercise away all of those body shape changes, and do our best to look like we're never going to graduate high school, much less own up to our real age. And this goes with a strong sense that we should be seen but not heard. A woman is the way she looks, because that is why she exists. She is for looking at. Nothing else about her is of value. 

This is not a new issue by any stretch of the imagination. I'm always a little startled by how many women know they're being sold this lie, and yet still do everything they can to conform to it. Listen to Annie Lennox sing "Keep Young and Beautiful" if you want a reminder of how blatantly old ads used to tell their audience about the importance of keeping up their looks if they wanted anyone to love them. Now I see it being couched in new ways, paraded as a campaign to tell women they're great just the way they are whilst still communicating the same old story. For instance, Oil of Olay still needs me to buy their products, so they still need to convince me I'm not okay the way I am, but they try to make me think they're saying the opposite by telling me to "love the skin [I'm] in." I'm encouraged to love myself and my body! Hooray!—just as soon as I recognize that there's something wrong with my skin and find the right products to help me fix it so I'm worthy of loving.
I love myself just the way I am... or at least, I will once I fix this mess of a body.
(Creative Commons Licensing)
Just recently, Dove's Real Beauty Sketches took over my Facebook and twitter feeds while women gushed about how moving the video was, but I felt vaguely queasy after watching it. It took me a few days to pin down exactly why, beyond the obvious cynicism regarding a company telling me that I'm great the way I am when they make money from convincing me that I need to control the way I look. What I realized after some thought was that a) these women weren't being told they were beautiful because people liked them the way they perceived themselves, but because they were actually thinner, whiter, closer to the accepted standard, etc. than they had perceived, and b) these women honestly believed that learning they were prettier than they realized would—and should—change their entire lives, indicating that their entire lives rest upon their attractiveness. This deeply disturbs me. I happen to think that what other people think about the way you look shouldn't mean jackshit to who you are and how worthwhile you are. I hate that I see the objectification and focus on appearance spreading to male bodies as well. Men have always been valued for their deeds, their thoughts, their contributions to society; are we really going to take that away from them rather than give it to the rest of the population?

What does this have to do with m/m fiction, or any other QUILTBAG fiction? Well, for one, there's my concern that rather than fighting against the idea that women's value comes from their appearance, and that their appearance needs to be X, we're simply broadening it to include men under the same blanket appearance = worth value system. I'm all in favor of equality, but not through equal degradation, objectification, and superficial judgment for all.
Could these dudes fall in love and be loved in return?
Not in most m/m fiction.
(Creative Commons Licensing)
 Then there's that by choosing heroes who are consistently stunningly attractive young, white, cisgendered males, we're not only excluding the rest of the population from having their stories told and their voices heard, but we're also implying that the people who have great love stories are the stunningly attractive young, white, cisgendered males. Do our main characters fall in love with the plain guy, the chubby girl, the trans* character? The older man? The person of color? Are our main characters themselves the average looking ones who also maybe aren't young, or white, or cisgendered? Or do we perpetuate the "hot guys meet hot guys, fall in love and have hot sex; meanwhile, nobody wants the rest of you" narrative? Do we continue to ignore most of the world's population, continue to tell them that in order to be loved, in order to be worth reading about, they have to be handsome because even if they are young, white, and cisgendered men, nobody cares unless they're sexy, too?
Dude, you're good. You're not white, but you're still hot.
Somebody will love you.
(Creative Commons Licensing)

Finally, I think this issue also impacts the quality and universality of our writing. I read a book earlier this year that I hated, in part because the sole draw to the love interest seemed to be that he was irresistibly gorgeous, and I am not generally attracted to any of the features attributed to him (sounded sort of like Brad Pitt, actually). It left me with no other reason to like him, and no idea why the main character was so head over heels. It's a poor romance to me that depends solely upon physical attraction, and a boring story. I wish I could say I haven't read any others like it, but that would be a lie.

Obviously there are exceptions to this. I've read some, I've tried my best to write some. But, like books in which the women are heroes in their own right, they are few and far between in this market. I would love to see more, and better, books celebrating the everyday love stories of everyday people of all shapes, colors, ages, and bodies. They might be less sexy to some, but they'll be more sexy to others, more relatable, and more interesting because they'll be more real.