I have a very sheepish confession to make:
I play otome games.
If you aren’t familiar with the term, “otome” means “maiden,” and they’re called “maiden games” because they’re targeted toward throngs of eager young female players who want their own pretty bishounen (beautiful boy) paper doll to dress up, chat with, and…pretend he’s knocking boots with the other boys in the game, not the girls they’re actually supposed to be dating?
Yep. Even though it’s basically Neko Atsume with boys, while the original goal was a story-style hetero dating game, what otome games attract the most are M/M fans who love their pretty men and love it even more when they dress up in appealingly flamboyant, stylish outfits…and then kiss. (You may have heard of the term “fujoshi.” I’ve seen some Westerners wear it proudly, even though fujoshi, like otaku, is actually an embarrassing label in Japan.) I can see why; many of these games originate in Japan and Korea, and it shows. In both countries, masculinity standards are different; there’s no one uniform for it, but things like sensitivity and grace can be praised rather than derided. Men pursue hobbies and passions that Westerners consider traditionally feminine, and it’s normal; what matters is the dedication to perfecting a craft. Men know how to take care of themselves without being babied by a spouse or parent (well, for the most part, let’s not get into hikikomori or the fact that sometimes some people are just slobs regardless of gender or culture.) It’s not embarrassing for men to care about their appearance as much as women, and some (very heterosexual) men in Korea even use skin care products and makeup, while the rise of KPop has created an entirely new era of men’s fashion that flatters men’s figures in ways that, in the West, might seem effeminate. You can see the same in JPop; both are subcultures that represent less the culture of a country and more a media-sensationalized ideal, but what they do is serve to normalize and even cater to ideas of masculinity outside what we’re used to in ways that blend into everyday society over time.
You can imagine why that would be popular and make such a huge transition from East to West in the form of games, manga, anime, J-Drama, K-Drama, music. In the West, in the United States in particular, we have such a culture of toxic masculinity that men are taught to repress our feelings because anything else makes us feminine and gay, and both those things are painted as negatives instead of positives. “Metrosexual” is used as a mocking insult. We’re taught to do this constant dance of making sure our every action is manly enough. Where women can call their female friends “girlfriend” without it being a thing, if we call our male friends “boyfriend” we’ll get punched in the face. The hetero quadrant of our demo will riot over the inclusion of a gay and/or trans character in their favorite game, because how dare something have 1% of content not catered exclusively to them. We live in a constipated snit of hair-trigger male egos and desperate attempts to prove our status as a manly-man worthy of dragging someone back to our cave by the hair and mating with them. At best, it makes it entirely frustrating to deal with our bull-headed and entirely fragile male egos. At worst it leads to misogynistic behavior that can express itself in sexual harassment, violence, assault. Basically men in the West are an unstable, unpredictable powder keg, and when women come together to share stories of the things they deal with every day from men, it’s really not surprising.
So is it surprising, too, that women (and some queer guys) flock to this imported subculture that creates a safe environment for exploration of other, less rigid forms of masculinity?
The M/M genre of romance is another place where this happens—where this idea of more flexible masculine norms takes root and thrives, so that we get romance heroes who are something other than the typical prideful, swaggering, ego-driven alpha who spends more time talking about how good he is at what he does than actually being good at what he does. Don’t get me wrong, I do love me a good alpha, too (and have an embarrassing weakness for alphaholes), and you’ll find those in M/M…but you’re a lot more likely to find an alpha whose passion is making sparkly, pink-topped unicorn cupcakes than one who spends all his time talking about the women he wants to fuck like every night club he walks into is a meat locker and he’s just picking out a prime cut. When I’m in the mood for that, great. But sometimes I want a little variety. A different archetype. Maybe even someone who reflects me: a tall, brown-skinned, androgynous multicultural prettyboy with a cynical streak a mile wide masking a gushy center ten miles deep, tsundere meets kuudere in between quoting Nietzsche, hissing at anyone who touches me, and wibbling over kittens from within the comfort of my blanket nest. You get a lot of variety when you stop trying to live up to masculinity ideals to just be yourself, and nowhere do we see men more free to be ourselves in fiction than in M/M romance.
But because it’s romance, we still have types/archetypes…and I do confess a few favorites. Such as:
- The Geek: This one is becoming more prevalent with the rise of geek culture as the new It Thing, and I love it. The thing with geeky boys is they’re smart—sometimes about one thing, sometimes about everything. Intelligence makes me wibble like you wouldn’t believe. The Geek may be sensitive and socially awkward, may be confident to the point of being biting, or may be the latter to mask the former, but it’s the smarts—often in areas such as technology, the sciences, and literature—that make the man. When he really gets going about the thing he loves, this passion shines through, a complete dedication to understanding and mastering something that matters to him, whether that something is semiconductor engineering or ancient archeological excavations. No topic is too obscure for him, and it’s often that passion that lets his love interest see him for who he truly is and begin to admire him for everything he gives to his craft.
- The Tsundere: If you’re not familiar with the “-dere” character types described in anime and manga, the tsundere is the type who’ll show they love you by telling you to fuck off, of course they don’t care about you, it’s not like they just happened to swing by your favorite pastry shop and just happened to pick up your favorite dessert because that was totally an accident but you can eat it if you want, no they’re not blushing, seriously fuck off they hate you. Only they love you. They just don’t want to actually get caught showing it, and will get flustered and snarly if caught expressing it only to again go do something sweet and loving…as long as you aren’t looking, and as long as you don’t actually call them on it. When explored in fiction this trait often masks a fear of being vulnerable, and when authors get deep into exploring that fear with some really open, honest moments it just melts me. The Tsundere takes someone really patient and understanding to love—someone who knows “I hate you” means “I love you” and can live with that in the day-to-day.
- The Nurturer: This is a trait typically (and stupidly) associated with women due to stuff with patriarchy that I won’t get into here because this is getting long enough as it is. So it’s really rare to run across a man with a deep nurturing streak outside of the “good father” archetype; a man who’ll go above and beyond to care for someone else, from fussing over their clothing to cooking for them to going into full-on nurse mode if they catch the slightest sniffle. Now, this isn’t meant to fall into the erroneous idea that men in this role just substitute for the wife in a relationship (again, do not set me off on the idea that this is a wife’s duty, either, or my inner feminist will rant about both that and the “who’s the woman?” misconception in gay relationships). More to just look at the sensitive side of this character’s personality and how they express their love through the ways they try to make their love interest’s life easier, and bring them happiness and health. They want to see their love interest content in all things, and want to be a part of that—and take deep satisfaction from the simple act of taking care of someone. …though if you pair that personality type with the tsundere you might just see someone chased through the house with a cooking spoon on a daily basis.
- The Shy Boy: He can’t talk without stammering. He blushes all the time. If he likes someone, he can’t make eye contact. He’s often depicted as prettier, more effeminate. If he has to talk to the guy he likes he’s never really himself, because he’s trying so hard not to fuck everything up that he’s doing and saying what he thinks he should do so as not to embarrass himself in front of this guy or give away his feelings. That can mean acting with false blustery bravado only to break down in stammers and flee, or pretending to be apathetic when he’s anything but and is usually a flustered, tangled-up mess inside. Or…he can do what I do: make about five minutes of pointless small-talk with a frozen smile, before running away in an attempt not to appear clingy, too invested, or inane. No, seriously. I do this. The primary indicator of how much I like a guy is how fast I run the fuck away. I am not cool, you guys. Sometimes I can pull off cool when I’m in a bad mood and want to ward people off, but if I like someone I am the epitome of anti-cool. Running away is generally an attempt not to bother/burden him or embarrass myself, until the running away becomes an embarrassment in and of itself and I start avoiding him because I’m just…mortified and sick of myself. In real life this basically means the guy gives not two shites that I exist, and sooner or later the whole thing just fades. In fiction? The love interest chases, and that’s where the real fun with the Shy Boy comes out, because you’ve got this flustered, blushing mess who can’t escape the object of his affections or how the guy makes him feel, and sometimes that guy takes way too much pleasure in seeing how fast he can make the Shy Boy dissolve into a mess.
- The Iron Giant: I think the best example of the Iron Giant is Gladio from Final Fantasy XV; as I play through the game I’m falling more and more in love with him and wishing he was the main character, and not Noctis. The Iron Giant is generally an enormous, hulking bruiser, the type you would expect to be an angry meathead, dull and violent and full of himself with a hair-trigger ego and What you get instead is this massive slab of (tattooed, please tattooed) muscle who’s into culture and the arts, who reads, who will sit down with you and listen to you talk about your feelings before quietly sharing a few words of support in return. He’s sometimes silent, but when he does speak it’s honest and heartfelt and empathetic. He’s not ashamed to care about things and people. He’s loyal. He’s intelligent. He’s gentle. Like, can’t stand to hurt a baby bunny gentle. Maybe he knits. Maybe he’s the one frosting those pink unicorn cupcakes. Either way, he’s nothing you expect from an iron-bound wall of corded sinew that visually seems to represent everything about toxic masculinity (see: why men in Western comics have necks thicker than both my thighs together with heads the size of my fist, wut) but as a person represents everything it means to be at peace with oneself and not have anything to prove.
So those might not fit into traditional labels for the genre, but they’re how they exist in my head. And what I love even more is that there are so many wonderful authors in M/M who can take these basic archetypes and flesh them out with depth and realism to create rich, complex characters that so many can identify with. It’s wonderful to pick up a book and be able to see yourself, where the self you are doesn’t have to fit into a prescribed role for just how much testosterone you sweat through your pores.
But while the genre in all its forms may be about homosexual love between men, it’s not anywhere close to a secret that the primary audience is heterosexual women of all ages. And I think there’s a certain wistfulness in that, something almost like wish fulfillment, in that while the traits expressed in the genre have become associated with queer men, many women get into the genre out of a wish for the real-life masculinity that surrounds them to be less toxic and more accessible, flexible, open.
So hey. Straight guys. Pay attention. Get your balls down from around your ears. Drop the defensive ego. Open up. Learn something. Learn to love yourself, instead of this idea of masculinity you’re supposed to inhabit. And if your self happens to include more squishy bits than you’re willing to admit?
Love those, too. Because there’s more to being a man than being the mighty hunter. There’s more to life than being a man. And if manhood is all your identity is crafted around…
You’re missing out on a lot.
About Xen Sanders
Hi. I’m Xen. Cole. Whatever you want to call me; both are true, and both are lies. My pen names are multitudes, my nicknames legion. Tall, bi/queer, introverted, author, and of a brown-ish persuasion made up of various flavors of Black, Asian, and Native American. I’m cuter than Hello Kitty, more bitter than the blackest coffee, and able to trip over cats in a single half-asleep lurch; I’m what happens when a Broody Antihero and a Manic Pixie Dream Boy fight to the death, and someone builds a person from the scraps left behind. Beardless, I look like the uke in every yaoi manga in existence; bearded or not, I sound like Barry White. About half my time is spent as a corporate writer, and the other half riding a train of WTFery that sometimes results in a finished book. Romance, erotica, sci-fi, horror, paranormal; LGBTQIA and cishet; diverse settings and diverse characters from a diverse author.