What is the place for men in feminist romance?

WARNING: Mild spoilers for The White Dragon ahead.

At Wiscon 30 (2006), I attended a panel called "Feminist Romance". Here's the description:

First off, is there such a thing and how would it be accurately portrayed? Very often romances in sf/f short stories and novels follow very traditional patriarchal patterns, even when fairly feminist individuals are writing. What does a feminist romantic storyline look like? Why don't we see these more often? How can writers who like to think of themselves as feminist avoid falling back on the old standbys without looking either unrealistic or like they are pushing a "message"?

I went because I pay more attention to the panelists than the panel description; I knew three of the panelists and was curious what they had to say about the subject.

As usual, the panel meandered around the subject quite a bit, but I noticed that there was one constant theme to all the comments: an assumption that the viewpoint character was a woman. Of course, there are some forms of feminism that do seek to sideline men, but mainstream feminism looks for an egalitarian society, not switching a matriarchy for the patriarchy. So it seems to me that a feminist romance should indeed include the possibility of a male viewpoint character.

Unfortunately, when I brought up the question, the moderator squelched it. (What I said was, "Given that we're talking about feminist romances, why are we assuming that the viewpoint character is a woman?" The moderator responded with, "Because the readers are women. Next question." Which was kind of puzzling given that the audience had a fair sprinkling of men in it, about the same proportion as Wiscon generally.)

Later on (at a room party), Emma Bull told me, "That's actually a darned good question." And my primary pointed me at this LiveJournal post, where several people expressed irritation at the squelching:
http://oyceter.livejournal.com/441372.html
(I'm still Mr. Anti-LJ, of course, but I do read individual URLs that people send me.) Getting that feedback made me feel a lot better.

Anyway, I'm posting this partly to add a bit more background on where I'm coming from. One of my favorite books is The White Dragon by Anne McCaffrey. If that's not a romance with a man as both viewpoint and primary character, I don't know what is. I wouldn't claim that it "is" a feminist romance, but I claim that it has a lot of attributes of a feminist romance, particularly because it has several strong women characters (Lessa, Menolly, Mirrim, Brekke) and Jaxom ends up choosing his partner precisely because she is a strong, independent woman. (The point is explicitly made that Sharra is less physically attractive than some other women. Which isn't precisely a feminist position, though I think that the traditional "only pretty women have romances" meme is definitely anti-feminist, especially when "pretty" is defined in a narrow way, but... <whew!> managed to catch that rant before it took off.)

The White Dragon was a best-seller, and I assume it's still selling well. So why aren't there more books like it? Anybody? Anybody? Bueller?

Notes

Wiscon

Wiscon is the leading feminist science fiction convention. I've wanted to go for years, but you can't take a non-stop flight to Madison, and I hate travelling around Memorial Day weekend, anyway. Plus Baycon is my local con and I only get to see many of my local pals there. But Wiscon 30 invited all the previous Guests of Honor, so I had to go, if only to see people like Ursula Le Guin and Samuel Delany.


Copyright 2006 by Aahz
Last updated 2006-1-2
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