The Fetishizing of Queer Sexuality: A Response.
Author: Victoria Brownworth
August 19, 2010
As a lesbian, I came of age having my sexuality co-opted for the titillation of straight men and even women. No skin mag was complete without the requisite faux lesbian spread because every straight man’s fantasy was first to watch two women together and then join them.
The first lesbian novels I ever read were purloined pulps found in the homes of people whose children I babysat for in high school. At the time I didn’t put together the fact that these straight couples were using my lesbian life to fuel their sexual fantasies, but that was definitely the case.
One of my prompts for writing about lesbian lives as an adult has always been to portray lesbians in their entirety—we aren’t just pretty nubile “girls” doing that ridiculous tongue thing that no real lesbian has ever done in her life. We have lives beyond what we do in bed. And what we do in bed never involves a man.
Years ago when filmmaker Lizzie Borden made her iconic lesbian/political faux documentary “Born in Flames” she told me in an interview that she wanted to portray lesbians as real women, not objects of male desire–she wanted to have them seen through the female gaze, not the male eroticizing fantasy gaze.
In her pivotal semiotic essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey redefines the gaze through which we view the world. The male gaze takes precedence over the female gaze, asserts Mulvey. In the male gaze, male power supercedes female action dehumanizing the female. It is an unequal perspective. In the female gaze, women view women and men as equals: their perspective is its own power. They have agency.
Queer writing gives queers their own agency in describing and portraying their own lives.
If you aren’t familiar with M/M fiction here’s what it is: Straight women fetishizing the lives of gay men.
Most of us who identify as queer understand the complexities of sexuality. Many of us struggled with claiming our identities and defining them. Were that not the case, we would not have the alphabet soup of the LGBTIQ community, would we?
That said, fetishizing the sexuality of others is still a blatant form of sexism, homophobia, racism. When you fetishize another’s sexuality, you make them less than. You make them Other.
This is the basic tenet of M/M fiction. Straight women pose as gay men—all these writers have either taken male pen names, like Erastes (who has actually had a male bio to go with her male pen name) or names that are, like Beecroft’s purposefully gender-vague—and write about gay male relationships.
Or what they think are gay male relationships.
In the pulps I discovered as a teenager, there was always a “male” lesbian and a “female” lesbian. The “female” lesbian was always weak and easily led away by a “real” man because a woman in capris was not the same thing as a man in a business suit with a penis instead of a dildo and never could be.
From the vantage point of the male gaze of these books—because the majority were written by men (Ann Bannon and Valerie Taylor aside)—the women could never be happy together because two women was a perversity. A man was needed to complete a woman. That was the inviolable paradigm. (Straight people are still arguing this in the marriage equality fight.)
The M/M genre–a romance sub-genre within a sub-genre–is all about the fantasy and the festish. As male pulp writers and pornographers wrote about lesbians as sexual objects, so too do the M/M writers.
In the M/M stories–a majority of which are historical romances in which class and age inequities prevail–there is a “male” man and a “female” man. As in lesbian pulps written by men, class and power inequities force the younger, “female” partner into situations that would be untenable in a real queer relationship.
A feature of M/M novels is often rape. A stronger man rapes a younger, more feminine man. This was often a feature of lesbian pulps and lesbian porn written by men. The “male” lesbian raped the “female” lesbian, making it easier for her to desert the lesbian for a “real” man because there was suddenly no difference between a lesbian and a “real” man.
In actual gay male relationships, men don’t rape each other. That breaks the bond–just as it would in a heterosexual relationship. That these women writers don’t know that is part of the fetishizing of the gay male bond.
In “Sex and the City,” the women occasionally watched gay male porn. In the new film about lesbian parenting, “The Kids Are All Right,” the two lesbians also watch gay male porn. In “Sex and the City,” the reason for watching is clear: there are no women to interfere with the sexuality of the men. But the action is voyeuristic, not paternalistic.
In “The Kids Are All Right,” the women explain that they watch it because of the excitement of the action–and the oppositeness of their own sexuality.
Neither of these scenes read as fetishistic–it’s voyeuristic but it’s also approbative. These women are not interested in appropriating, changing or reviling gay male sexuality or relationships.
In M/M fiction, there is an inherent disrespect of the gay male relationship. Even descriptions of gay male sex and the language used to describe it is wrong. The term “fisting” is used repeatedly as a synonym for masturbation. (Try and envision that physical anomaly!) The term “honeyed cleft”–long a term used for the female sexual entrance–is used to describe the male anus.
The edict for writing has always been: Write what you know. Alas, that is what the M/M writers are doing–they are writing straight male/female relationships but putting them in gay male bodies.
We can blame ourselves a bit for this unholy trend. The queer mainstreamers have repeated “we’re no different from straight people” for so long that obviously some people have come to believe it.
Except we are different. Our relationships and sexuality are sacrosanct in their differentness from heterosexual relationships.
M/M writers defend their misrepresentations and fetishizations with this simple declarative: Writers write about vampires and werewolves and they aren’t vampires or werewolves.
But vampires and werewolves are not actual people. Seriously. Not.
Imagine a group of white writers writing only about people of color and then telling those people of color that they know better about their lives than the people of color themselves.
Universal outrage–and deservedly so.
Some say the M/M trend, slight as it is, is indicative of some larger trend of acceptance by straight people of queer lives. That’s like saying slavery was acceptance by white people wanting blacks in their lives.
I would add onto Mulvey’s reinterpretation of the male gaze with the addition of a queer gaze: Can straight writers write about queers? Of course they can. But the M/M genre is not that. It’s about reinterpreting gay male relationships for heterosexuals in a fashion that is fetishistically sexual and which thus can be accepted–because it is ultimately negative. The straight readership may not see it, but queers do.
When we embrace the straight fetishizing of our relationships, we aren’t heading toward acceptance or tolerance. When we give straight writers the power to say we got our own relationships wrong and they know better, we are embracing our own oppression. That’s at the core of M/M writing–not the queer gaze but a distorted gaze. And that does not broaden perspective on our lives even a little bit.