Musings: What’s Love Got to Do With It

(Sorry about the title, I couldn’t resist.)

Every so often, there pops up on Twitter this one (really annoying) discourse, summed up as “where are all the good f/f books”. Firstly, good is incredibly subjective, but we’re not going to go into that here. What I’m going to talk about actually is emotion socialisation and gender.

“Right,” you say, “but what’s that got to do with this?”

What it has to do is this: a lot of what’s called “good” here revolves around the emotions it evokes. That is, the same tropes show up in m/f, m/m and f/f, and yet f/f is the only one where people ask “where’s the good stuff”. My argument here is that at least some part of this can be attributed to how a book evokes emotions. Particularly, how the emotions it is acceptable in society for men or women to feel translate into relationships.

As ever, I’m not gonna act like I have the answers. This is, instead, some theorising for you to think about.

Let’s start with the background theory.

Socialisation involves the internalisation of social norms and ideologies. So, unsurprisingly, emotion socialisation relates to the internalisation of those norms and ideologies which are associated with emotions. You can probably think of a few norms off the top of your head. Women showing anger are irrational, etc, etc, while men are passionate. You know the drill.

Root and Denham (2010) state that emotions

play a pivotal role in a multitude of areas of child and adolescent development, including social functioning, academic performance, and the development of psychopathology

so it’s easy to see just how important emotion socialisation is. Emotions themselves are, of course, partly biological. Instead, what you’re socialising is the meanings assigned to the emotions, and how appropriate their expression is. These sorts of norms are internalised when you’re young, likely even before you’re fully aware of it. And parents (and other family members) are key in that process.

But there are obviously factors that help determine socialisation. It doesn’t just happen in a vacuum. Among these factors is gender, which dictates, particularly, the appropriateness of certain emotional displays (see the example I gave above). There are two possible ways in which gender can affect socialisation – through the gender of the individual being socialised and through the gender of the person doing the socialising. In the first case, parents have been shown to differentiate their responses to emotions based on child’s gender. In the second, parents differ in responses to a child’s emotions based on their own gender. So, it becomes a cycle.

Children learn about emotion through three primary modes of socialisation: witnessing others’ feelings and emotions, having their own emotional displays responded to, and how they are taught about their feelings and emotion. Each of these modes has indirect and direct impacts on the child (Denham et al., 2007; Denham et al., 1997). For example, indirect socialisation may occur through the family’s emotional climate* or through parents’ own expressiveness during family interaction. Direct socialisation, on the other hand, relates to parental reactions to emotions (supportive or non-supportive) or discussions of emotions.

*Emotional climate refers to the predominant collective emotions perceived as shared by members of social groups (Páez, Espinosa & Bobowik, 2012).

In general, researchers consider three areas of emotional development (or emotional competence): understanding emotion, expressing emotion, and regulating emotion. Perhaps the key one in this argument is the expression of emotion. This is defined by Denham et al. (2003) and Eisenberg et al. (1998) as the

propensity to display emotions in an effective and appropriate manner within given contexts and cultures

where obviously what is “effective” and “appropriate” depends (surprise, surprise) on internalisation of norms.

And this brings us back around to gender. Ruble, Martin and Berenbaum (2006) describe the influence of gender thus:

Virtually all of human functioning has a gendered cast – appearance, mannerisms, communication, temperament, activities at home and outside, aspirations, and values.

Basically, you cannot look at anything without also looking at gender. And, unsurprisingly, gender development comes about, in part, through socialisation by caretakers. That is, their attitudes about gender roles (Tenenbaum & Leaper, 2002) and responses to gender-typed behaviours (Lytton & Romney, 1991) influence the child’s own beliefs about gender roles and their subsequent gender-typed behaviour. Additionally, parents will also communicate differently with their child based on their own gender and their child’s gender.

There’s no escaping the damn thing.

So you can see how this interacts with emotion socialisation. Norms within a particular culture will dictate the “masculinity” or “femininity” of specific emotions, those norms will be played out by already-socialised parents, thus socialising their children.

Some research examples:

  • expression of sadness and other internalising affects* are perceived to be non-masculine and men who display such emotions are more negatively viewed than women (Siegel & Alloy, 1990; Western cultures)
  • emotions of an externalising* nature, e.g. anger, are seen as more acceptable in men than women (Birnbaum & Croll, 1984)
  • mothers emphasise sadness and fear in conversations with daughters but not sons (Adams, Kuebli, Boyle & Fivush, 1995)
  • fathers responded to their child’s sadness with more minimising responses (e.g. “Don’t be such a crybaby.”) while mothers would encourage this sadness (e.g. “It’s okay to be upset.”) (Cassano, Perry-Parrish & Zeman, 2007)

*An externalising behaviour is one which is directed towards the external environment, hence an externalising emotion is similarly directed, like anger. Conversely, an internalising behaviour is one which is directed towards the self, hence similarly for an internalising emotion.

Remember those old friends, compulsory heterosexuality and how society centres men? Well that (or something similar) is probably at work here too. You can see the full point I previously made here (point 3), but in this case, two things are important. Society centres and caters towards men more than women (hence why men’s anger may be acceptable, but women’s is not). And heterosexual relationships are centred over non-heterosexual ones.

Let me explain more what I’m theorising in context. If men’s externalising emotions are seen as more acceptable, then it follows that these emotions in m/f or m/m relationships will be seen as more acceptable, simply because such relationships involve men where f/f ones do not.

What does this mean for books? you’re probably thinking.

Well then.

Firstly, I need to make clear an assumption (a theorised one!!) I’m making in this argument:

  • the sort of fierce or intense love you see a lot in m/f or m/m relationships in books is an externalising emotion, perhaps similar to anger and thus acceptable in men, less so in women. In this case, the external environment includes the other individual in the relationship (which is why I’m arguing it to be an externalising emotion).

So, obviously, how you are socialised is reflected in what you write, either consciously or subconsciously. You can’t escape it. You probably aren’t even aware of it a lot of the time. (This is likely blindingly obvious, but it’s always worth stating that anyway.)

And because emotions are something you have socialised, particularly those which are acceptable for different genders, that will come across in your writing. Hence why f/f relationships tend to be soft and gentle, while m/f and m/m ones are allowed to be more intense.

In fact, I would argue, it’s only something you might really notice when you come across an f/f relationship which is not that.

Here, have some examples:

But hunger is a many-splendoured thing: it needn’t be conceived in limbic terms, in biology. Hunger, Red – to sate a hunger or to stoke it, to feel hunger as a furnace, to trace its edges like teeth – is this a thing you, singly, know? Have you ever had a hunger that whetted itself on what you fed it, sharpened so keen and bright that it might split you open, break a new thing out?

“This is How You Lose the Time War”, el-Mohtar, A., Gladstone, M.

“I don’t need you,” Kalanthe said. She took a deep breath. “But, Olsa, I want you so much. I want you more than I have ever wanted anything in the whole world. Please, you have to trust me.”

“The Afterward”, Johnston, E. K.

Once you see it, it’s really hard to unsee it. This is not to say that the f/f relationships which are soft and gentle are bad, but I think it might explain why people tend to gravitate more towards m/f or m/m relationships (besides the fact they are either lesbophobic or fetishising – and other points I made in my first post).

You want to read books that evoke emotions in you, because those are the best books, and love is a massive emotion to be evoking. I mean, what book doesn’t involve love of some sort? And because m/f and m/m books are allowed to have this intense, all-encompassing love, this hunger, that f/f ones rarely are, people (particularly women) will want to read those.

(There’s also a point I would argue that m/m or m/f relationships which are soft, especially on the part of a/the man, are more acceptable than f/f ones which are intense, because of the whole centering men thing. But that’s another discussion.)

So to bring it back to socialisation: emotion socialisation will show up in what authors write but also in what readers choose to read. And then you’ll start to make associations as well, like assuming all f/f will be “bad” based on a sample of not that many because it does not evoke those emotions (not that I’m bitter about this), while being more willing to read (and rate highly) m/f or m/m doing the same thing.

What you get then, is a proliferation of this idea that f/f cannot be intense or fierce, that if you want those feelings you have to go looking at m/f and m/m. That is, to experience those emotions you have to put yourself in the shoes of a male character.

And because of that, people won’t read f/f, or will disparage it and ask “where’s all the good stuff”. The good stuff is right there, you’re just expecting something different out of it than you’re getting.

A final note, I realise this has all been very centred on cis men and women. That’s because, surprise!, the research is primarily centred on a cis gender binary, and I don’t really want to make claims or theorise too much where there isn’t research to back me up, particularly as a cis person. I’m sure, however, you can take some guesses about what would be the case outside of cis individuals. It’s also probably fair to say it’s Western-centric (again, research – look up WEIRD participants if you want to know more).

But it is, I hope, a start.

As ever, I didn’t mean to write so much, so thanks for sticking with it…

Let me know if you have thoughts on this! I’d be glad to hear them.

2 thoughts on “Musings: What’s Love Got to Do With It

  1. This is something that I thought of before but I certainly didn’t have the language/literature to express it as well as you did!

    I think it also works from the other side — because we are so used to men not showing internalised emotions (I hope I’m using the term right!) authors can use it to build up the pinning and when this rough dude does something moderately soft and vulnerable we instantly see it as special and when they finally show those emotions to their LI it’s like the final commitment or something whereas women will have friends and support systems and talk about things, with the LI and friends, so it’s harder to use that for intensity and if you try to use externalised emotions you risk having your ship called ‘abusive’ because people are so not used to women expressing anger and/or lesbophobic, but that’s another subject entirely.

    Anyway, great post! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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