Recently, I listened to a YTuber’s reading and review of Colleen Hoover’s November 9. I’d already encountered CoHo’s writing via a snippet shared to Twitter (replete with a “look at this crazy shit” message). And I was … not impressed. CoHo’s writing, though, is the perfect example of why I can’t with most M/F romances any longer.
I’ve known this for a while—I’m an editor, and some of the proposals I receive are, of course, het romances. This is fine, but more often than not, I find myself tearing my hair out.
Why? What’s so wrong with het romances? What about them in particular makes me want to toss them at the wall?
Won’t Someone Think of the Patriarchy?!
My biggest issue with most m/f romance these days is how complacent it is about perpetuating patriarchal power structures. We can look at CoHo here. In November 9, virtually everyone exhorts the main character to forgive the “poor boy” love interest.
Why? Oh, because he was hurting so bad! He was hurting so bad that he stalked someone and committed arson. Arson that unintentionally hurt the main character—nearly killing her and leaving her scarred for life.
We can then layer in that the guy in question proceeds to try and control her, but abandons her for his dead brother’s wife (who is like a “sister” to him). Then he gets mad when she’s hurt and proceeds to stalk her.
Then, the biggest betrayal of all: he lied to her for years. Yes, it was a lie of omission, but it was still a lie.
So he’s a lying arsonist and stalker, but hey, it’s okay, because he was in pain!
Women Can Fix Broken Men with Healing Love!
Not once does anyone suggest that the guy maybe try … therapy or medication or grief counselling! No, no, we should just forgive him for these totally not-normal behaviors because he was grieving.
I don’t know—the MC nearly dies and is betrayed by a guy she was in love with, but she never sets anything on fire. She doesn’t stalk anyone.
And this is very common in patriarchal power structures. Women, like our MC, must set aside their own feelings, their own pain, to tend to men. Poor man. He just didn’t know any better. I bet the healing touch of a loving woman will magically “fix” him of his stalker tendencies and his desire to light people on fire and cause property damage when he’s hurting!
Actually, probably not. The only sensible thing this character does is run away from this guy and cut off all contact.
That is the right answer. Yet every character around her supports him in his stalking of her (he gets her address and send her his manuscript, in an attempt to get her to read the “real story” and forgive him). Her own mother insists she should read it and learn to forgive him. At the very end of the tale, the MC asks for the male LI’s forgiveness.
Girl Talk: Give It All Up to Please the Dudes in Your Life
Perhaps the most egregious example of this, though, is the moment when a female “friend” asks the MC to forgive the LI for stalking her. What’s her reasoning? Is it obvious he truly loves the MC?
Nah, her justification is that their mutual male friends likes this guy! The MC should totally forgive the stalker so their other guy friend has someone to pal around with!
Because if another straight white dude likes him, he can’t possibly be bad, now can he?
And this is what patriarchy asks women to do, always. Instead of supporting each other or thinking about their own needs, women must put the needs and wants of men first. A dude’s want of friendship trumps a young woman’s safety.
When Biology Trumps Chemistry
This leads us into another complaint I have with het romance on the whole. All too often, we end up with leads that are very clearly toxic for each other—like CoHo’s November 9 couple—but the text tells us they are “so perfect” for each other.
I’m not entirely sure why we buy this crap, especially when it’s obvious that the leads have little to no chemistry.
Instead of creating chemistry—you know, characters who actually seem to like each other and want to be together—these stories end up leaning very heavily on biology.
What do I mean by that? Well, pretty much that: he’s a man and she’s a woman and therefore they are in love.
This is often the extent of the characters’ attraction to each other: he, manly man who is so masculine, and she, feminine woman who is so feminine.
The text will go on about how the heroine can tell the LI is “such a man” or how he’s the “perfect paragon of masculinity.” We might even hear about his “masculine” scent. For her, we’re definitely going to hear about her wiles and her “soft, feminine curves.”
It’s baffling. What does “a man” look like? All hard muscles and chiseled jaw, apparently. What does “a man” smell like? In these texts, it’s often just “masculinity.”
This is frustrating because these books treat love and attraction as simple math: man plus woman equal love.
You Still Need to Use the Right Equation in M/F
That is absolutely not how it works! And even in world, we can see that is not usually how it works—both characters may have met plenty of other men and women, whom they dislike.
So why is “masculine man” and “feminine woman” enough to hold together this relationship?
Worse are the books where the characters seem to actively dislike each other. You know the ones. The ones where the “alpha-hole” man is stomping around, growling shit like, “Woman, you infuriate me!” And she, in her inner monologue, is telling us all about how much this man drives her up the wall with his overbearing ways. He’s always telling her what to do! Never listening to her! Always thinking he’s right!
All right, pause here please. Why the fuck are these two together? They’re shit for each other! All they do is fight, and then, I guess fighting is sexy, so they end up (hate-)fucking.
This is not a healthy relationship, yet so many m/f romance novels treat it like some kind of ideal, something we should all strive for.
There’s grumpy, and then there’s misogynistic asshole, right?
Women Are Treated Like Objects (and They Will Like It)
Perhaps the thing that drives me the most bonkers is the possessive and jealous man. This fellow shows up in quite a few m/f romance novels. Even some of the more gentle and mild-mannered heroes will suddenly transform into green-eyed monsters if they perceive a threat to their “claim” on their woman.
The only story I tolerate this in is shifters, and even then, I want to see the text prod at it, examine it.
Most m/f romance never bothers to interrogate anything. The way men and women interact—often in antagonistic ways—is just biological fact. It’s gospel than men will be dickbags and women will silently simmer with anger at them.
The possessive thing gets me, because it often leads to the male MC basically assaulting his love interest. Very occasionally, we’re told this is her aim. She kisses another man because she knows it’s going to get him riled up. She wants to make him jealous.
The Green-Eyed Monster Signals Unhealthy Relationships
Outside of those situations, though, the heroine is often just minding her own business. Maybe this is the third act and the couple has broken up, so she’s dating a new dude. She holds hands with him or maybe even kisses him, and then suddenly, there is her jealous ex, steam pouring out his ears, growling at her new beau that he’s not good enough, take your filthy mitts off her, etc., etc.
And what does the heroine do? Tell him off? Give him a lecture about how he can’t control what she does, he doesn’t own her?
Very rarely—and it’s refreshing to see when it does happen. But all too often, she gets all swoony, thinking about how he truly must care if he’s acting like this.
And then he’ll grab her by the hand and drag her off, or grab her by the chin and kiss her.
And we—and the heroine—are expected to think this is hyper-romantic and wonderful. Wow! He’s so overcome by his emotions, his love for her, that he’s completely ignoring consent and her bodily autonomy! Sexy!
Except that it’s not. This is, again, not exactly something we need to get rid of in romance—there’s a place for “brute” characters—but even when I’m reading contemporary romance, we have men who behave like utter cavemen, for no discernible reason.
Oh, wait—it’s biology. Men are just gonna men, amirite?!
Miss Me with This M/F Romance
I’ve already hinted that these tropes drive me up the wall in m/f romance, but I find them at least somewhat more tolerable in certain situations. In omegaverse or werewolf fiction, for example, having someone with a powerful instinctual drive makes some degree of sense. Even better are those stories where both the female MC and the male MC experience the same sort of insatiable instincts to possess each other.
I also find stories that are supposed to be about “brutes”—characters who exist like this for a reason in the worldbuilding—to be relatively acceptable. In short, give me an established reason for this kind of attitude from the characters.
Copy/Pasting Human Relationships into PNR
Unfortunately, a lot of monster romance doesn’t do this; it simply takes “monsters” and pastes their monstrosity on. SJM is a good example: her fae characters are really just human men. There’s no exploration or explanation for them acting the way they do. And even when the story wants to lean on “well, it’s their culture,” I’d like to ask why faery culture is just white Western patriarchal “culture.”
And why does the human female character just go along with it? Feyre seems to fight back a bit in the first book, but later instalments don’t allow for a true “cultural clash,” which is absolutely what should happen when a human character falls in love with a faery or a vampire or a whatever else. They should not understand each other. They need to negotiate that.
Women Give It All Up for Men in Contemp Romance
This happens in contemporary and historical romance as well: across-the-aisle books usually end up featuring not a culture clash but a “the woman will accommodate the man and his horrible views.” (Very rarely do we see conservative woman/liberal man; and rarely is it the liberal woman getting the guy out of the cult of the right-wing—our female MC simply learns to “put up with” or perhaps even “love” his raging misogyny.) What about Nazi romances? Genocidal and racist ideas never seem to be a sticking point. “He wants all my people dead, but twu wuv!” Sure, okay, Jan.
And this—this—is why I can’t fuck with m/f romance! It never stops to interrogate the underlying issues, to say, “Hey, you know what? Maybe this isn’t okay!”
And that’s where I’ve argued before that romance publishing—as much as it’s escapist fantasy for many readers—is fundamentally conservative. It tends to push a very particular, patriarchal viewpoint on readers—even when it pretends at being progressive or liberal. The underlying message is often still “get married, have kids” and/or that “love conquers all”—and that women should give everything up, including their own belief systems, to allow for love of a “good man.”
Exceptions to the Rule
There are, as always, exceptions. There are authors doing good work in the m/f sphere. One of the most obvious places is polyamory. Meg Mardell’s A Chaperoned Christmas features a F/F/M relationship, a rather lopsided triangle evolving into a satisfying relationship. And the two female characters are quite “strong, independent” women, although they’re quite difference. The novel prods at class differences and privilege, and it addresses misogyny. There is only so much it can do, given its historical setting, but it still takes the “prevailing attitudes” of the day and has the characters play with them.
Juliet Moon’s debut is perhaps another example, this time with a M/F/M pairing. There are no “swords crossing” as the two male characters are brothers, but the story does a good job indicating all three characters’ desire. The female MC has as much desire, as much sex drive as the two male characters. And they all stop and wait for consent, even though they’re all wolf shifters.
The two male characters are extremely protective and possessive of their female mate, but she’s as possessive of them as they are of her. And their “possessiveness” extends into a good deal of respect for her. One of the brothers suggests that the “omega” female character doesn’t belong to them—they belong to her.
Other Queer Scenarios Where M/F Loses Its Toxicity
M/F romance featuring bi or pan characters, as well as trans and genderqueer characters, also pushes the envelope here on a regular basis. I’ve argued elsewhere that queer romance, by virtue of being queer, has to question heterosexual mores, even if the author is trying to be “apolitical.” Queerness is antithetical to the cishetnormative paradigm. The second you queer a text, you challenge the “normativity” of cishet thinking. Is it normal? Why?
Queerness invites us to think “outside the box,” which then allows us—or asks us—to question why we assume that men and women are simply gonna get together, even if they have all the chemistry of helium interacting with … well, anything.
This is something we question a lot in TV shows and movies as well. A lot of het romances feel forced, while characters seem to resonate more with their same-sex friends. Kirk and Spock might be an example from classic TV. Another example might be Spider-Man and Deadpool. While Spider-Man is classically hooked up with MJ or Gwen, his chemistry with Deadpool is hard to deny. Both characters love quips, breaking the fourth wall, and the way they carry on a conversation (or a fight) is great fun. Canonically, Spidey and Deadpool are “heartmates”—something like soulmates—even if they’re not together-together. (Queer platonic relationships can and do exist, so we shouldn’t discount this.)
Trying to Find “Good” M/F Can Be Rough
So, m/f romance that includes a queer angle often ditches the stuff that makes many het romances insufferable. Finally, we have authors who do recognize the inherent way het romance can push cishet ideals and work to debunk it.
Yet those are few and far between, which means trying to pick a m/f romance is almost always a minefield. I’m much more likely to run across the CoHo type of “isn’t abuse romantic?” Than I am to run across the others.
That’s unfortunate, because it’s led me to write off a lot of m/f romance, and a lot of writers who are probably quite talented. Maybe someday I’ll get back into reading m/f romance.
For now, I’ll keep my toes in the water with polyam and other queer texts, which do the work of challenging the inherent problems in so many m/f romances.