Heteronormativity in MM Romance?

Betty Postelwaite couple

Photo Credit: Betty Postelwaite

Watching a conversation unfold on Twitter about a reader searching for ‘who is a top and who is a bottom in MM romance.’ For this particular tweeter it seemed confusing and relevant, especially when writing gay fiction.

I was surprised and delighted with the response that came back to him/her:

I just think that searching for who bottoms is like searching for who is “woman” in the relationship.

I love that, because unfortunately, in MM, all too often I see ‘roles’ which are specifically defined without actually stating them. Granted, there are specific sub-tropes that play into this, but I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on how heteronormative ideas about gay relationships permeate MM romance.

Have you seen it, and does it matter to you?


  1. This is a very interesting discussion and something that Ive been pondering over as I scope out the book that I’m about to write. Because I don’t want to write things that don’t feel genuine.

    From my perspective the heteronormative aspects of most of what I’ve read come from the romance side, rather than the fact that the characters are men. And I suppose that a lot of what is often described as heteronormative is actually just ‘tradition’. As gay men (and of course the other people in LGBT) simply haven’t had the space and time to create a distinctive, unique, dating culture that doesn’t ape it’s heterosexual counterpart.
    When you think about, it it’s only in my lifetime that gay men have gone from being fully criminalised, to tolerated, to beginning to have equal rights in society. My own experience includes a few examples of that. When I was 16 and having sex, that was completely illegal for me, yet for my hetero male and female friends it was completely legal.
    When my hetero friends were getting married in their 20s and 30s it was still not possible for me to have my relationship recognised in the same way.
    So for many gay men we have grown up with the examples around us, the majority expression of dating through to romantic couplings then to marriage, as what hetero couples do. So it shouldn’t be surprising to read those expressions being transferred over to m/m couples and to read two men copying what a male/female couple would do – because we simply haven’t had much other options.

    With the exception of a short lived ‘queer’ culture in the 1990s, we as gay men haven’t been offered much choice. It’s never been suggested to us that we could or should do things differently when it comes to romance and being part of a couple. Although a handful of people I know do have distinctly non-traditional relationships and live quite happily (although these just wouldn’t fit into the m/m romance genre as most readers would struggle to find the romance in them).
    In fact it’s often been expressed to me by other gay men that we should try be be more ‘hetero’ in order to convince the more conservative straight folk who make our laws that we aren’t some scary-corrupt-predatory group of people – that we are ‘normal’ and ‘earned’ the same rights as everyone else.

    The other aspect of this is of course the writing of men as men. There are of course as many types of men as there are men in the world. Many writers seem to write their characters as a variation of a type, rather than as an individual character. Many of these types are very culturally specific.
    The whole top/bottom thing is very American. There is much less use of this as a way of describing yourself in real life amongst gay men outside of America. So although top/bottom might fit an easy way to describe who does what in a relationship when writing a book, it is very limiting and not terribly ‘realistic’ when used to describe people, particularly non-American people.
    Following on from that into character types of alpha male all the way through to effeminate male. Well these are just bizarre to me. Most people will fall somewhere in the middle. To me, it’s more interesting to read about the mix of characteristics and experiences that make up this middle group than to read about those on the two extremes
    As a side note, I should say that living life at either of these extremes (the total alpha or the total fem) is extremely hard in real life and I’ve never read something that truly and hostly explores that.

    By focussing on the notions of romance that are, through historical tradition, hetero and then focussing characterisations on the extremes of reality, if is inevitable that the m/m romance genre will be incredibly heteronormative.

    Where I’d like to see it go in the future would probably be more accurately described as ‘gay romantic fiction’ – fiction that has as it’s focus two men, who are exploring what it means to enter into and develop a relationship with each other. That can, and should, happen in the broader story types (from western, science fiction, contemporary, rom com, to fantasy, and across all the other types of genre fiction).
    As part of that story there should be some form of exploration of sex, and some negotiation of boundaries and likes and dislikes between the two men involved.
    It can still be hot and steamy, can still be removed from the traditional m/f romance and still be enjoyed by all genders and sexualities. It may take us some time to get there though.

  2. I can see both sides of this argument. Sure it does seem heteronormative to try and fit all gay men in the roles of “top” and “bottom” or “man” and “woman.

    But at the same time, there are plenty of gay men out there that are exclusive “tops” and exclusive “bottoms”. We just have to remember there are as many gay men out there that like to switch it up a bit.

    Though I do agree there are too many M/M books out there that deal in stereotypes. There’s nothing wrong with a guy that is an effeminate exclusive bottom. But like another poster said, as long as they are original in their feelings and who they are, whether they give or receive, pitch or catch, top or bottom (whatever words you want to use to describe it), that’s what matters.

  3. amelia bishop says

    I think it’s kind of funny (like funny-sad), this idea that whoever does the penetrating during sex is somehow “in charge” or the “alpha”. LOL! Oh what a sad and shallow relationship-view that is.

    I keep hearing about these books where there is a very effeminate “bottom” and a very butch “top”, but I guess I’ve been lucky in that I don’t see that very often. I can’t think of a book I’ve read like that, actually. It sounds to me like the mark of a poorly written story, in any case, and one I would probably pass up based on the blurb alone.

    All relationships settle into “roles”. There is often one partner who is more communicative, or one who is more dominant, or one who is more affectionate. This isn’t necessarily hetero-normative, it is simply normal for all human pairings. Cooking, cleaning, child-rearing, crying, talking, or openly expressing emotions are not effeminate traits, any more than accepting penetration is.

  4. The whole joy of being able to write MM is that you can throw away the norms of romance and start again. Every couple is different. If every sex scene is dependent on who tops and who bottoms how boring is that?

  5. Elin Gregory says

    The majority of readers seem to approach any book with gay protagonists expecting that the book will be first and foremost a romance, moreover an erotic romance. All kinds of rules apply to het romance – no cheating, HEA, clearly defined roles, a character with whom the reader can identify, characters with whom the reader can fall in love, plenty of detailed and explicit sex scenes, masses of angsty display of emotions. The rules don’t seem to be different for M/M. I have always disliked het romance. I find myself disliking some M/M for the same reasons. The books are predictable, and I get very irritated with weak and weepy protagonists, likewise with those hero/ines who are ‘feisty’, often demonstrated by being inexplicably and unnecessarily bad mannered, especially to the other protagonist. The books I really enjoy are the ones where the romance is secondary, where there’s a really strong plot, maybe a mystery, where the action is complicated or strengthened by the growing relationship between the protagonists. I’ve just finished reading The Man Who Understood Cats where the relationship is between a gay psychiatrist and a straight detective – no romance but the development of a tender friendship. No romance, no romance necessary to the story. If there is a romance, what they actually do to each other in bed isn’t completely irrelevant, quite a lot of character development can take place when two strong characters negotiate what each will permit the other to do to him, but unless it’s relevant to the plot and/or to the character arc, a sex scene is just padding, no different to a detailed but unnecessary description of interior decoration or being informed of the exact make model and brake horsepower of a car.
    That said I must make a very embarrassing admission – something about which I feel very guilty. I’m a het female and sometimes I’ll be reading, reach the obligatory sex scene and find myself thinking “Oh wow, I didn’t think this character would be the bottom”. Evidently I come to books with my own prejudices and expectations. On the other hand I like books that surprise me and wouldn’t stop reading because my expectations hadn’t been met.
    When writing, because I’m not that interested in sex scenes I don’t write many and if I do I keep it brief. I think that in every relationship there will be one character that is more dominant than the other because humans are all a bit different. But this dominance will change according to circumstance, according to expertise and according to self confidence. A normally confident and assertive man will be prepared to let someone else take the lead when in unfamiliar circumstances, or he won’t and will cause all kinds of offence and disaster. Excellent material for plot and it would work in the bedroom too.

    • Excellent points. Might I also add that a confident man will (in a real relationship) gently prod the unassertive partner to take the lead and thereby build their own self-confidence. That little nudge is, unfortunately, not something I see too often in MM.

      • Elin Gregory says

        I’ve never seen it in a romance, more’s the pity. I enjoy seeing proper relationships. I can imagine them lasting for years rather than just to The End.

  6. Kia Zi Shiru says

    This reminds me of a post I wrote early 2012 where some people responded and called me heteronormative because I insisted “a man is a man is a man, no matter if they’re gay or straight.” And I said that gay men aren’t second rank women.
    I was called heteronormative for insisting that people should write less write m/m romance with the straight male/female roles, and thus masculine top and effeminate bottom, in mind. Real life doesn’t work like that and it ruins the genre (that I feel should be safe for at least gay men) because bored women would like to imagine what it was like if they had a dick themselves, while still mostly acting feminine, and they feel that because they like the fetish of it that they should set the rules for the whole genre, ignoring people who are actually gay.

    Sure, tropes here and there are fine, and you can work with them, but m/m romance shouldn’t be filled 99% with tropes. I’m a yaoi fangirl, I know all the tropes by heart, yaoi is all about the tropes because the tropes are what differentiates yaoi from bara, it doesn’t mean that each gay book I pick up I want to be confronted by stereotypes.

    I agree with @stephendelmar:disqus though I think we should try to differentiate between gay fiction (depicting real[istic] gay men) and M/M romance (bordering on fetishation[sp?] of gay men). A lot of works (some of mine included) are gay fiction and not romance, while most people who read them will think they are romance because that seems to be the only “gay genre” that really exists.

    • “that seems to be the only “gay genre” that really exists” Know the feeling.

    • I wonder if this IS changing? I’ve only been reading m/m (romance) for the last 2 years or so, but I generally find authors exploring vast relationship roles that would rarely be found in het romance. So, do you think it was the earlier stuff that stumbled with this?

      I think the most highly followed m/m romance series currently revolves around two alpha(?) types. The Cut & Run series jumps off the charts for fan following and I think it could be safely argued that neither M/C is effeminate. One seems to bottom more often, but not always. So, it makes me stop and wonder if authors have changed or if readers tastes have changed?

      • Kia Zi Shiru says

        My background is actually in fanfiction and FictionPress.com. I’ve only started reading published (ebooks) gay and m/m works about 2 to 3 years ago, I’ve been reading slash and gay original works for almost 10 years.
        I find there is such a difference between what some 16 year old girls, who are new to writing, can bring out in amazing characters and stories and some of the stuff that is published.
        I find that (as soon as you sift through the ones that are so full of spelling and grammar errors that you can’t read it) the 15-18 year old girls who just do something are more likely to write gay men that feel real.
        I’m just hoping that more of the (mostly girls) that I read back in those days will take the same steps as I did and actually publish their work.

        I haven’t read any of the series you’re talking about. I’ll check them out.

    • Leta Blake says

      Interestingly, I have seen very little acceptance of effeminate gay men in m/m romance. If you write an effeminate gay man, you face some major backlash. But effeminate gay men exist in the world and I find the snubbing of them homophobic and misogynistic all rolled into one. They are men, but the shunning of any femininity is disturbing to me. The important thing is to write characters who are realistic–whether they are effeminate or macho, nerdy or jocks, bankers or hippies–and to avoid stereotypes, unless the character is living those out for a reason of their own.

      • Kia Zi Shiru says

        I might have not made it clear in my post above, I do apologise for that, but I’m not against effeminate gay men (hell, quite a couple of my friends are like that). I do talk out against writing gay men who aren’t men.
        I’m gonna try to explain what I mean…

        Effeminate gay men are not my problem. Effeminate gay men written like women with dicks (no offence to the LGBT community, I’m simply combining gender stereotypes of one gender with the physical attributes of anoter) are a problem. I’m fine with effeminate as long as not 99% of what they say is either about clothing, fashion, being fat or the FABULOUS dress that girl across the street is wearing. That is writing a stereotype of a woman, who is not a woman. Even the most effeminate gay men are still that, they are men, they aren’t women, they shouldn’t be written like women.
        My problem is not the effeminate, my problem is the effeminate gay men who are written like nothing more than horny gender-swapped women, which they aren’t, even if they prefer the D over the V.

        I have been told that I should shut up about this and that female authors of m/m can write whatever they want because women are the biggest readers of the genre. Whatever gay men think of their stuff is not important because romance is a female genre and that is who they write for. To hell with the real men who are gay, they write what they like.
        I’ve had gay friends of mine (authors) who were told by female readers of the genre that their gay men were wrong, because they didn’t fit how they see gay men. They were both too masculine, or they weren’t horny enough, or they didn’t want to jump everything that they saw. They protested against people who wrote real gay men because their gay men didn’t fit the images that they had of what gay men were like.
        This scared me a lot. This is also the reason I’ve only slowly expanded the authors that I read. I’ve ran into so many really poorly written work that I no longer just jump in, and some of these come from small or medium presses that specialise in the genre.
        What I do feel is that problems like these are more likely to come from people who like to read/write “a sexy new type of romance” and less from people who actually frequent LGBT blogs and websites and are involved within the bigger community.

        Right now there are a couple of authors who I will always read, no problem. I’ve also got a list of authors and publishers I will stay away from. That list only very slowly grows because I sometimes just don’t feel like having to sift through a lot of books when I can just buy (or reread) an author that I know who will deliver a good book and cast.

        • Leta Blake says

          What you’re describing is not actually this, “Even the most effeminate gay men are still that, they are men, they aren’t women, they shouldn’t be written like women” but rather this, “That is writing a stereotype of a woman, who is not a woman.” Because what you’re describing are BADLY WRITTEN CHARACTERS. Women don’t behave in those ways either.

          So, to me, the issue is not if the gay man is effeminate, or horny, or not horny, or “alpha male”, or whatever else…the issue is whether or not they are written as well-rounded, true-to-life human beings. Basically, when I see people complaining about gay men being written like women, I start wondering just how they see WOMEN, you know? I mean, when was the last time I read a woman in a book–especially a romance–that I related to as a woman? It’s sadly been awhile.

          So, I have no problem with you or anyone else pointing out that some of the characterizations of gay men (and of women) in books are deeply problematic because they are unrealistic, stereotypical, and lacking in creativity, but I guess I do end up having a problem with the idea that it is because the men are being portrayed as ‘like women’…because generally I don’t even know any women who behave like these stereotypes in the books.

          Maybe a better phrasing would be “gay men who behave like the worst and most unrealistic stereotypes of women”. That’s a phrasing I could probably get behind.

          **I have been told that I should shut up about this and that female authors of m/m can write whatever they want because women are the biggest readers of the genre.**


          **I’ve had gay friends of mine (authors) who were told by female readers of the genre that their gay men were wrong, because they didn’t fit how they see gay men.**

          Well, obviously, that’s shitty and short-sighted and homophobic and fetishizing on the part of those who have said these things. I’m certainly not expressing that opinion. I’m just challenging the idea that these characters are written “like women” because I think that they’re just crappily written characters who are not like women at all.

          Hope this made sense! I haven’t had my coffee yet!

  7. Stephen del Mar says

    Yes and it is rather annoying and I think one of the things that sets “gay fiction” off from M/M. I really don’t know if I can read any more about the fem little bottom boy and the butch top. Most men I’ve known like to switch around, ’cause you know that’s part of the fun of being a gay man! 😉

  8. Speaking strictly as a reader, I switched to M/M because the het books are too “women are submissive/weak/etc” and have to be saved by the “awesome model of male perfection”. That doesn’t make sense, I know, let me try again. I like the M/M books because the characters are equals, even when one is primarily the top or the bottom. Sex doesn’t change WHO the characters ARE. Yes, I’ve enjoyed books that have the prince charming story line, and that’s why I don’t make a lot of sense trying to describe what I’m thinking.

  9. Amelia C. Gormley says

    I’ve seen some readers complaining about books where characters switched, or where the bottom wasn’t the character they thought it should be, and it drove me nuts. Because it was obvious that they were trying to force their own heteronormative expectations upon the genre. In an M/F couple, unless they’re into pegging, you DO always have one partner who is penetrative and one who is receptive. BUT the entire friggin’ point to M/M Romance is that it’s NOT M/F ROMANCE.

    I try to treat the couples in my books the way I understand RL gay relationships to work. Sometimes one or both partners prefer a specific role. Sometimes they don’t.

    In STRAIN (my upcoming February release) my characters align with heteronormative stereotypes, but that is driven by the characters and the situation. For reasons dictated BY CIRCUMSTANCE, Darius is larger, stronger, gruffer, older and he tops. Rhys is smaller, younger, weaker, afraid, and far less assertive (for a large portion of the book.) For most of the book, circumstances demanded Rhys be the receptive partner, but even once they didn’t, there was just no way those characters, given their circumstances, personalities, and backgrounds, were going to switch.

    I was completely open to them doing so once the situation allowed for it. As I wrote the story, I kept nudging them, asking Rhys, “Hey, sure you don’t want to take the reins and rock Darius’s world?” Or asking Darius, “Why don’t you encourage Rhys to go for it?” But nope, nothing doing. And I’ve generally found forcing characters to do what they feel patently wrong about doing is a good route to writer’s block.

    In SAUGATUCK SUMMER, (my upcoming May released) however, Topher is very lithe, femme, flamboyant, the stereotypical nellie bottom. Or so we assume until Topher flips Jace over and shows us otherwise. And Jace is happy to allow him to do so.

    So, yeah, sometimes things align with heteronormative stereotypes, but I definitely believe in bucking them when my characters allow it. And whenever I read a book where it happens, I really hope that the author at least considered the alternatives and handled it that way for a reason that didn’t include pandering to societal expectations.

    • Amelia, I couldn’t agree more. Even to the degree that if I read an author who stayed in the stereotypical dynamic, and didn’t explore many different situations, I’d probably be looking for something else. (IMO, the number one reason for leaving hetero-romance.)

      I want the surprise. Let me think I know what you’re going to write and then blow my little mind! Make your characters complex. Switch them up and by all means give them layers.

      Now, I have to say that I’ve been pretty fortunate and chosen well. The ideas that I had about gay relationships were pretty much chewed up and spit out in my first M/M read. Heh, I no longer automatically think that the one who cooks is the bottom, ;D Btw, yeah, that cooking thing seems to still hold a lot of weight for some MM authors.

      I’m a BIG fan of switching, but I’m also comfortable with couples who know what they like. As you said, the point of M/M is that it’s not M/F! What I’ve singly enjoyed about reading M/M is getting to understand relationships from a different perspective.

      • The cooking thing… that’s new to me. Is cooking supposed to be the equivalent of being effeminate? Geez, I thought we had moved beyond stereotypes like that for all of humanity.

        • Cooking is a funny thing isn’t it? Chef = Male. Oatmeal = Housewife??? I don’t know. But it is something that is toyed with in M/M all the time. Whether the author uses it as something to surprise the reader with (the big guy cooks – surprise!!!) or, the effeminate man can whip up a wicked souffle’ (no surprise, just another added benefit to his general homey qualities). Yeah, were we talking about gender/role stereotyping?

          No one ever seems to do the dishes though. J/k – maybe that’s just in my house 😉

  10. Comments should be on now. Sorry.