Monday, October 3, 2011

Is Popular Romance Homophobic?

I've recently posted at Teach Me Tonight on male homosexuality in heterosexual popular romance, and am reposting here. I recently came across the following passage in a Mills & Boon 'Modern Romance' sheikh title I'm researching. The passage struck me as odd, gratuitous and distinctly homophobic.

The heroine, Tally, is arguing with the hero, Sheikh Tair, trying to convince him that he is not as monolithically violent as he appears to be. The conversation goes as follows:
Tally: "You might say you're a brutal, vengeful man, but I don't see it. Your men adore you-"
Tair: "Please don't say my men and adore in the same sentence. It makes me extremely uncomfortable."
Tally: "The point is, you know your men care about you."
Tair: "You're confusing affection and respect. My men don't care about me. They fear me. Two significantly different things."
(Jane Porter, The Sheikh's Disobedient Wife, p. 105)
The line which gave me pause was Tair's comment 'It makes me extremely uncomfortable'. No explanation is offered for this statement, and the conversation swiftly moves on. But this jarring, homophobic comment stayed with me, as I began to think about how gay male sexuality is figured in heterosexual popular romance. How does this hero get away with being so homophobic?

Clearly, the context of the desert culture of the sheikh romance cannot be ignored here. As parts of the contemporary Middle East and Africa continue to criminalise homosexuality, it could be representational accuracy that leads this hero to espouse homophobic views. Yet given that these romances deliberately distance themselves, both geographically and in political terms from the reality of their Middle Eastern and North African settings (for example in the creation of fictional nation states over which the hero rules), it seems unlikely that this statement is simply a reflection of contemporary social politics.

Perhaps this homophobia is part of the hero's overtly constructed masculinity. Sheikh heroes are amongst the most deliberately masculinised Harlequin Mills & Boon hero; the traditional dress he wears, usually a keffiyeh or dishdasha and a long robe, seems to carry the danger of making the hero appear effeminate. This is frequently addressed and vociferously denied in sheikh romances:
Like her, he wore a long, loose robe. But, far from making him look effeminate, the outfit somehow accentuated the width of his shoulders, the whipcord strength of his body, his innate masculinity.
(Annie West, For the Sheikh's Pleasure, p. 109).
Is it possible that this homophobic comment serves to further masculinise (in the sense of heterosexualise) the sheikh hero (whose masculinity already treads the borderline between effeminacy and masculinity)?

There doesn't seem to be a whole lot of critical work on male homosexuality within heterosexual romances (perhaps because of its usual lack of mention), although a Teach Me Tonight post from 2006 discusses homophobia in romance. There has, however, been considerable work on lesbian romances and Stephanie Burley has considered the homoerotic potential of the romance, although this article focuses on women as the primary readers and authors of romance ('What's a Nice Girl like You Doing in a Book like This?: Homoerotic Reading and Popular Romance').

My reading expertise does not stretch far beyond modern sheikh romances, and homophobic references such as this do seem to be rare. But I would be very interested to hear about any other references to homosexuality (both positive and negative) within heterosexual popular romance. I wonder:
  • Is gay sexuality always undesired/rejected in heterosexual popular romance?

  • Is there room for the homoerotic in these romances?

  • And how do these compare with representations of female homosexuality (of which, in heterosexual romance, I have encountered none)?
These are certainly questions I will be considering in my future romance reading.


  • Stephanie Burley, 'What's a Nice Girl like You Doing in a Book like This?: Homoerotic Reading and Popular Romance', Doubled Plots: Romance and History, ed. Susan Strehle and Mary Paniccia Carden (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2003)

  • Jane Porter, The Sheikh's Disobedient Bride (Richmond: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2006)

  • Annie West, For the Sheikh's Pleasure (Richmond: Harlequin Mills & Boon, 2007)


  1. I think it comes down to what the readers want, which is the same old stuff they've been reading for eighty years. With the exception of certain scholars, Mills & Boon and the like aim for a very low and extremely common denominator, who have about as much interest in sampling new literary ideas as the queue outside a Burnley chippy on a Friday night has of trying lobster bisque and moules marinière. They don't want anything exotic or challenging, they want comfort food.

    And in just the same way that they don't want drive-by shootings or political satire, they don't want to imagine men getting it together ... just like people reading James Bond don't want to read about a metrosexual modern man showing his feminine side when dating the ladies. And I don't have a problem with that.

    I don't see the lack of gay action in heterosexual romance literature as homophobic, although there are certain elements (such as the exchange between Tally and Tair) that are explicitly homophobic. Re the second extract, from Annie West, don't confuse gay/straight with masculine/camp. While the stereotype of a gay man may be a mincing wimp (do I really come across like that? ;-) ), there are plenty of gay men who pride themselves on their intense masculinity.

    On the other hand, what I do think is missing is a more general portrayal of gay relationships in literature. I can think of very few regular, mainstream books where gay characters are mentioned, other than for a specific part of the plot. This isn't just true of gay men in literature but of most "minority" groups in most aspects of the media. Homosexuality is rarely presented as "normal", and is usually only present where there's a particular reason for it, rather than the occasional character being gay because that's just how they are. I find that more homophobic, more offensive and more patronising than the fact that cheap and trashy romance literature aimed at heterosexual women focuses on heterosexual liaisons.

  2. "I think it comes down to what the readers want, which is the same old stuff they've been reading for eighty years."

    Stevie, M&Bs are continually evolving. If you're interested, you could take a look at jay Dixon's book about M&Bs: she analyses the main themes and developments in every decade of M&B's history up to the 1990s. Harlequin, M&B's parent company, recently established an e-book first imprint, Carina, which does publish m/m and f/f romances.

  3. Thanks for your comments Stevie and Laura - Stevie, from my research experience, Laura is correct to state that Harlequin Mills & Boon romances have evolved over time (jay Dixon's book illustrates this particularly nicely, with chapters focusing on each decade of the twentieth century). There are also publishing houses which produce lesbian and gay romances (e.g. Bold Stroke Books). So whilst the core, category, heterosexual romances might still be marginalising non-heterosexual relationships, there are signs that romance authors and readers outside of that core are branching out.

    You do, however, make a very good point about literature in general excluding (to point of invisibility) gay relationships. I find it intriguing that this is still the case when other popular media, such as TV and film, are beginning to focus on gay relationships (e.g. The L Word, The Kids Are Alright). The segregation of straight, gay and bisexual relationships in romance (and in media more widely) is something that continues to bother me, and I wonder how long it will take to address that. Clearly, a shift in media representations of sexuality is going to have to take place alongside a wider social revolution.

    Finally, just a quick clarification about the quote from Annie West's 'For the Sheikh's Pleasure': you are absolutely right that stereotypes of gay men are hugely used and abused in popular media. However, my point (which might not have been clear enough) was that the hero might be constructing his HETEROsexuality by displaying stereotypical hypermasculinity, including, unfortunately, homphobia and 'looking manly in a dress' (some heroes' wearing of traditional Middle Eastern is actually described like this!).

  4. This is also particularly weird when representing Arab masculinity, because strongly affective ties between men are normal and desirable (even if *sexual*/*romantic* affective ties are very taboo). To me it seems to be far more reflecting a western discomfort with the potentially feminising effects of affectionate male friendship.

  5. Rachel, I read it like this too: these sheikh heroes are remarkably 'western', socially, culturally, even racially. You might be interested to read some of the comments made when this post was published at Teach me Tonight ( there were some really interesting ideas about het romance and homophobia, and the author even commented about her intentions for Tair...