As a person, I’ve faced a lot of stereotypes in my life, for all different reasons. Being a tall, skinny geek in my youth, going through cancer and then being an overweight, average height adult with superior geek tendencies and a loner attitude have all brought their own stereotypes, for whatever reasons.
For me, I never want to perpetuate any stereotypes in my books, because I know what it’s like to be treated like one. So here’s a couple to think about and maybe wonder if you want to accent in your writing, to really show how big of a stereotype it is or if you want to go the opposite way and challenge these ideas.
This is one that I face a lot in my writing of MM romance and it’s a concept that we see continuously in movies and TV shows that either challenge the stereotypes or play up to them. They are the age old portrayal of lesbians as unattractive women with short hair, who are butch and dress like men and the portrayal of gay men as femme, perhaps cross-dressing, excitable and non-serious partygoers who sleep around. Similarly, bisexual characters are rarely portrayed in TV, but when they are they’re always the one who sleeps around with anyone, male or female, are usually sexually aggressive and a playboy who doesn’t take anything seriously.
Yet, some shows have successfully beaten the stereotypes into submission. NCIS had a military couple, married and in a secure, long lasting relationship, neither of whom were femme. Blindspot has the character Rich Dot Com, who plays up the play-boy attitude for others, but in reality is a romantic at heart and loves only one man. With Arizona and Callie in Grey’s Anatomy, they showed a positive experience (for a while) of a lesbian couple raising a baby together. In Rosewood, we actually get an interracial lesbian couple. Poppy and TMI, for me, are my favourite lesbian couple – they’re not thrown in your face to say “see, we have an LGBT couple” like some shows do, but they’re not buried or ignored in any way. There are a million more, in recent years, such as Orange Is The New Black and How To Get Away With Murder, but I don’t watch those personally, so I won’t comment on how well they do.
Disabled characters in novels really get to me. As someone who is in a wheelchair whenever I leave the house, there are huge stereotypes here. Mostly, that people who are disabled have to be disabled 100% of the time. I’ve never read a book by another person where a character was in a wheelchair, but could walk for short distances or around their own home, like I can. Yet, that’s the reality of my life and I plan to show that in various stories, to bring more awareness to it. There’s also the issue with how disabled people are treated – often treated like babies, talked to like children, and if in a wheelchair people think they have to bend down to speak to them or to meet their eye, as if any communication is impossible otherwise, then there’s the people who speak very slowly and very loudly, as though being disabled in body means that we’re also deaf and dumb.
A much more frustrating stereotype about disabled people has been bugging me for years. I’ve seen it in books, but worse still I’ve actually seen it being played out in TV shows such as Bones and NCIS: LA. It’s the stereotype of someone becoming disabled due to an injury or accident and instantly hating themselves, everyone else and being an angry idiot, who takes it out on the innocent people around them. Now, I was made disabled by chemo that saved my life from an aggressive, Stage 4 cancer which everyone associated with death. Basically, the fact that I’m alive 15 years after my treatment is a miracle and if I have to be in a wheelchair to enjoy my life now, I don’t care. It was the least of my problems, at the time. I never got any help until years later, when it was already too late to do any good, so there was no learning to strengthen my muscles, no intense physical or psychological therapy to teach me how to cope. I was completely on my own, something these TV characters didn’t have to deal with.
For me, (using the TV examples) if I had survived a plane crash OR had suffered a spinal injury and had to learn how to do everything again, I would be friggin’ happy to be alive at all! I wouldn’t be alienating everyone, making others feel useless, yelling at the people I love the most and acting ungrateful for the life I had. I found the NCIS storyline especially hard to watch, because this happens to someone who goes through therapy with all the help they deserve (something I never got) and can physically see how military men and women have suffered crippling injuries, lost limbs and worse during their service. That, to me, is the definition of ungrateful and it’s a concept we have to challenge, because there are men and women all through the world who suffer more than what I have, what those TV shows portrayed, and they pick themselves up, they dust off and they get back to their lives, because they understand how precious their life is.
This is a huge stereotype in stories. Women are generally helpless and have to be rescued by men, especially if they’re the MC in a romance novel. No matter how “strong” most people claim to make their women, they eventually need to be rescued by a man and give up everything to fall in love. Similarly, men are the Alpha male type, all strong and brutal and often bordering on violent, obsessive and controlling. Think FSOG for these stereotypes on steroids. These kind of stories also use other stereotypes to boost the ‘romance’, such as the female being the virgin and the man being the virile male who spreads it around until he finds ‘the one’ who makes him want to settle down. The man is always more adventurous, the female always naive and inexperienced. The few girls who are portrayed as strong or independent and can take care of themselves are often made out to be loners, geeks and either the butch lesbian or some ugly creature who is smart and strong because she has to be, because she can’t get a man. (insert eye roll here) Women can’t be strong, independent, without a man in their life or be feisty without being called a ‘bitch’. Men can’t be sensitive, gentle and the least aggressive of the relationship.
Usually, the only time we see these stereotypes being challenged are within murder mysteries where the women is a detective, or in LGBT stories, but even these have their stereotypes. Such as, the lone female in the department fighting to be recognised for her accomplishments, the man oppressive her from higher up or a male partner who somehow ‘justifies’ her position to the rest of the department. In LGBT stories, women are often used in MM romance as fag-hags – women who are sassy, bitchy and surrounded by gay male friends, who often love to interfere in their love lives. Men are either the unwanted equation, overbearing and egotistical in the likes of FF romance or the femme/butch best friend who shows the MM main character just how butch/femme his new beau is and that it’s exactly what they never knew they wanted.
Age is a great divider, in a story, because it can show how mature or immature a character is or suggest that one has experience over another character. However, it can also be turned on it’s head. Your younger character could be the young-genius, who has suffered a lot and has learned from those experiences. Your older character could be jaded and stuck in their way, or be the tomboy who has no intention of settling down. The age gap between characters can be used to show that the younger is actually more mature and the older is the playboy or maybe show how it’s not the length of a life that’s important but what is done with it.
Similarly, older women who date a younger man are considered predatory cougars, while older men who seek out young women are to be envied. A young woman with an older man is most often portrayed as a gold digger, while a younger man with an older woman is the ‘pool boy’ or boytoy of their relationship. The younger is always the ‘jailbait’ and the older always the richer, responsible and respectable one with all the power. And when the young guy goes after the older women it’s generally portrayed as her being the Mrs Robinson, desirable older woman with flair and power and good looks, or the mother of one of his friends/colleagues and the relationship being all about the danger of sneaking around.
Here, I’ll show some examples from my own writing. For instance, in The Cellist, it’s Roman, the youngest of the couple, that is actually the more aggressive one when it comes to starting their relationship. Ben is older, more settled in his life and is aware of how much the age difference could affect them, so he’s the more reluctant one. In Decadent, the first book, the only prominent female character, Orion, is the seductress, the cheater and the one who plays innocent to deceive everyone. It’s her boyfriend, Lachlan, who is the emotionally connected character, who isn’t afraid to cry, who isn’t afraid to be upset by the break up and who is a little lost.
In Following Orders, I challenge the concept of ‘labels’ and how they can be harmful or misguiding. Christian begins the book believing that he’s asexual, because he’s never once had a sexual attraction to another person, male or female. But he’s also been homeless for a long time, self sufficient and without much adult guidance in his life, so I wanted to show how possible it was to believe something about yourself so strongly that you lived it, only for some unexpected person or event to crash into your world and change that perception and your entire life.
In Courage in the Kiss, my only MF Contemporary novel for 18+, I showed the social split between a live-in servant and the people she worked for. Not only had they developed a familial relationship, but she had fallen in love with one of the brothers she worked for and thought that her position in the house was set in stone, that she couldn’t date outside of her ‘social position’.
Within the construct of the Decadent series, there are villains in nearly every book, but it’s only in book 4, Underneath It All, that the “villain” is true to his name and irredeemable. Before that, I wanted to show that people make mistakes for various reasons, perhaps because of what was done to them or because of what was happening around them. Grayson, Konnor and Tam all lash out from extreme stress, relationship turmoil and emotional distress. Giovanni lashes out due to an undiagnosed and unexpected schizophrenic episode.
I want to see these stereotypes flipped upside down. If you have a recommendation that fits, hit me with it.