Fancy something different?
Admittedly, there is something comforting about reading mass market romance. I know what I am in for; it’s a quick fix; wham bam, thank you, Mills & Boon. As a romance critic, however, I resist this lulling pull. Instead, I focus on discovering complex ploys and unheard-of depths in what seem, on the surface, run-of-the-mill romances, and I love getting my teeth into romances that don’t just comfort, but also surprise me. Reading niche romances, which extend the genre, I can never be quite sure who or what may trigger romantic titillation.
Erotica and erotic romance have led the way in this opening-up of the genre. In the “romantica” published by Ellora’s Cave or the female-centered erotic romances of the (sadly, discontinued) Black Lace imprint, for example, a diversity of sexualities captures today’s pluralistic sexual landscape. Think of how these texts have updated the old motif of the love triangle by allowing for a new sort of happy ending: not the tidy m/f couple, with the rival man or woman sent packing, but the polyamorous m/f/m or m/m/f triad, with everyone getting an HEA.
Lately I’ve grown fascinated by gay romances, in both fiction and film. I remember crying my eyes out at the end of Brokeback Mountain or being touched by the bittersweet teenage love story in Beautiful Thing. To me, these romances seemed even more effective (and affective) because they involved two men. This left me pondering whether my response to them was somehow analogous with men’s infatuation with “girl-on-girl” eroticism, or whether it was something entirely distinct. Can the homoerotic male-male encounter boost a quintessentially romantic reading/viewing experience and elicit female pleasure? I believe it can, and it seems I am not alone.
“[T]here’s a huge number of straight women who want to read gay erotic romance,” says the founder of ManloveRomance Press Laura Baumbach, “Why not? They like men. One man is good, two are exciting together” (quoted in Robbins 32). The growing acceptance and ubiquity of homoerotic imagery in diverse cultural products and advertising—who could forget the white swim-trunks-only clad body and reclining torso of model David Gandy in Dolce & Gabbana’s “Light Blue” ad?—has made a space for a sexualising female gaze. The discerning female onlooker views these male pin-ups as romantic/erotic spectacles, much like the ones she finds on the covers of Ellora’s Cave ebooks Pirate’s Booty (2005) and Trust (2009). This commodified fetishisation of male bodies offers women, at least to some extent, the power to objectify the sexy male body.
Yet more than just a spectacle is involved. I would argue that queer love can be integral to a female reader/viewer’s quest for romantic fulfillment. It may be a self-gratifying, even voyeuristic experience, but it’s all the more pleasurable because it involves participants ‘other-than-me.’ And it’s further proof that the patterns of the romance—like the belief that amor omnia vincit—can contain many sorts of love without the genre collapsing or being transmuted into something radically different.
Don’t underestimate the emancipatory potential of polyamorous, same-sex, and other innovative forms of romance. They push back against the idea that every happy-ending love story is the same, in fiction and real life, and they bear witness to the fact that the generic boundaries of the romance are not fixed but constantly in motion.
Carole Veldman-Genz is a specialist on contemporary gender and cultural theory, popular culture, and genre theory at RWTH Aachen University, Germany. She has contributed to Bringing Light to Twilight: Perspectives on the Pop Culture Phenomenon (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) and New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction (McFarland, 2012).