In this week’s guest post, Desiree Villena explores how the audience’s view of queer romance can be skewed when reading through a heteronormative lens:
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I recently had the good fortune of reading Casey McQuiston’s Red, White, and Royal Blue — which, if you weren’t aware, is the new adult romance sensation sweeping the nation. The essential plot is as follows: the First Son of the United States, Alex Claremont-Diaz, falls in secret, swoon-worthy love with Henry, Prince of Wales.
Naturally, this leads to quandaries both geopolitical and deeply personal; Alex’s mom is up for re-election and Henry’s family (including the Queen) is wildly homophobic, so they’re forced to hide their relationship from their families and from the media. But our heroic couple persists — even after their private email correspondence reveals their romance to the world (sound familiar?), Alex and Henry emerge stronger and more profoundly in love than ever.
It’s a glorious modern romance with a healthy dose of political drama, more detailed and realistic than many other romances out there — though still full of all the genre-typical tropes that readers know and love. Of course, this territory also comes with the anxiety-inducing tightrope walk that every romance author must attempt: writing love scenes that feel thrilling and heated — but not overly porny or, worse yet, cheesy.
McQuiston handles her love scenes with perfect elegance, focusing on the anticipation and emotions rather than the act itself, all while injecting her unique voice into every description. Nothing is less sexy than trying to “deconstruct” sexy scenes from a writer’s perspective, but I can confidently say that those in RWRB are some of the most thoughtfully crafted I’ve ever read.
However, as I noticed in a few Goodreads reviews — and as McQuiston herself has pointed out — some readers seem to conflate that skillful conjuring of sensuality with “explicit” scenes. And while there’s nothing wrong with erotic literature, this book simply isn’t it. The vast majority of RWRB is about the story, not the sex… and when sex scenes do occur, they’re hardly X-rated.
As readers will see in her Twitter thread on the topic, McQuiston generously chalks up this conflation to readers’ unfamiliarity with a) intimate scenes that aren’t necessarily explicit, and b) queer sex in literature more generally. But let’s consider it in a wider context. How pervasively have queer people and their relationships been disproportionately sexualized? And how does this affect how people experience their stories through other mediums like books and film?
I’ll start with the first question: more than you might think. The exemplary incident that immediately jumps to mind is, of course, the recent attack on two young queer women in London for refusing to kiss in front of their harassers. The men involved had obviously decided the women were sexual entertainment for their benefit, which is already quite disturbing — but exponentially more so when you consider their violent response."it’s clear from both everyday microaggressions and more pernicious acts of homophobia that our society still perceives queer people as inherently more sexual than their het counterparts" Click To Tweet
Here’s a much less extreme example, but one that demonstrates just how early such prejudices begin. I’m friends with quite a few well-meaning moms on Facebook, and hardly a week goes by that I don’t see a reposted viral video of a couple of kindergarteners playfully kissing. All in good fun — except, of course, the children are always a boy and a girl. I have a very difficult time imagining them posting the same videos with two boys, or two girls: they’d likely label them as inappropriate, or even sexual, despite the participants being literal children.
In other words, it’s clear from both everyday microaggressions and more pernicious acts of homophobia that our society still perceives queer people as inherently more sexual than their het counterparts. But how much does the “hetero gaze” project false assumptions when consuming works of queer fiction?
The answer here is perhaps not as much, but still… quite a bit. And not just in books! Look at two of the most-discussed LGBT films of the past decade, Call Me By Your Name and Blue Is the Warmest Color. Before seeing both of these movies, my impression was that they’d be 90% sex. And while sex is certainly present, both movies were much more focused on the emotional relationships between main characters, and on their individual journeys grappling with their identities — sexual and otherwise. Nevertheless, the sexual component vastly dominated the conversation surrounding these films.
I would also posit that — like the Facebook moms posting nothing but sweet, heteronormative children — further proof of this is lies in mainstream stories’ lack of queer relationships. Until very recently, authors have been reluctant to include them for fear of alienating audiences, only admitting in retrospect that those characters “were actually gay all along.”"queer characters have always had it tougher than everyone else, and the double-standard for “acceptable” levels of sexuality does no one any favors" Click To Tweet
(Are we all thinking about the same thing now? Oh, Albus Dumbledore — such a travesty. Harry Potter may not have been a romance series, but it still had its fair share of boy-on-girl snogging, not to mention hetero HEAs for all the main characters. And what of Dumbledore’s fate? Mentor/eunuch for six books, buried gay after that. Not that he was a beacon of ethical purity or anything, but that’s a whole other article.)
The bottom line: queer characters have always had it tougher than everyone else, and the double-standard for “acceptable” levels of sexuality does no one any favors. Even if writers no longer eliminate all LGBT characters from their work, the tendency to read queer relationships as inherently “explicit” perpetuates inaccurate and damaging stereotypes about actual LGBT people. And as we’ve established, even the most nuanced portrayals of queer relationships — like McQuiston’s — are not immune to this problem of perception. Any intimate love scenes will inevitably result in some readers perceiving them as “explicit.”"no matter what your orientation, it’s simply not healthy to view all people of a certain group as inherently deviant" Click To Tweet
Even for non-LGBT authors and readers, the double standard is not ideal. Why? Because, no matter what your orientation, it’s simply not healthy to view all people of a certain group as inherently deviant. It’s not enjoyable, either, for lovers of romance! Just as in any book, we want the characters to feel real and complex — which is virtually impossible if we keep (consciously or unconsciously) projecting stereotypes onto them.
Finally, and most vitally: as long as these issues continue, so will discrimination and acts of violence against queer people. It may seem dramatic to discuss homophobic assaults in the context of mere fiction, but the double standard for what’s “explicit” in romance books is a symptom of a much bigger systemic problem."the double standard for what’s “explicit” in romance books is a symptom of a much bigger systemic problem." Click To Tweet
To address this deep-rooted homophobia in our culture, we have to start somewhere. I encourage readers to start here: by honestly examining their own perception of queer characters, especially in romance, and thinking about how external sources may have warped it. For all our pride flags and purported activism, we all need to make more effort to understand the inner lives of queer characters — and by extension, the real people they reflect — if we want to be genuine allies.
About the Author
Desiree Villena is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors and publishers with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. In her spare time, Desiree enjoys reading contemporary fiction and writing short stories. She’s very passionate about publishing and social justice (as you may have been able to tell from this piece).
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