Gender Roles in Lesbian Romance

By Laura Vivanco on Monday, 8 April, 2013

In "Gender Role Models in Fictional Novels for Emerging Adult Lesbians" Cook, Rostosky and Riggle state that

emerging adult lesbian role models in contemporary novels portray some behaviors and emotions that resist traditional gender stereotypes as well as other behaviors and emotions that reinforce them. (160)

As the authors themselves acknowledge (163), these findings are based on a very small sample: "This study focused on 16 lesbian protagonists identified in 11 young adult novels that received 2011 Lambda Literary Award nominations" (150) and of these only 5 were romances: Always Faithful, From a Distance, Nightshade, Nigredo, Midnight Hunt. Nonetheless, their findings are interesting and others might wish to see if the trends they identify are replicated in a larger sample. I'm going to focus on the negatives here because they seem to have been particularly noticeable in the romances, but the article as a whole tried to keep things more balanced by also stressing positive aspects of these novels.

One of the ways in which the romances in particular reinforced "traditional gender stereotypes" was by depicting

one partner [...]  as more masculine and one [...] as more feminine. These expressions of masculinity were illustrated primarily with hyperaggression and hypersexualization.
All [...] characters exhibited signs of hyperaggression through displays of fighting, violent bursts of anger, and/or the rejection of any female roles or feminine presentation. (159)

It was often "the masculine character who initiated sexual contact with the more passive feminine character, mimicking traditional heterosexual relationship scripts" (160) and another feature familiar to readers of m/f romance was that "These masculine characters generally must be 'tamed' or calmed by the feminine characters. However, the taming is typically focused on calming the masculine character’s temper and aggression, not their sexual desires" (160).

Cook, Rostosky and Riggle conclude that

Depictions of masculinity and traditional gender-role scripts were present in almost every novel in the romance genre. The same traditional gender roles that may be problematic in heterosexual relationships appear to be grafted into many lesbian romance novels, thereby foregoing an important opportunity to provide emerging adult lesbians with a unique perspective on same-sex romance and models for how to express a range of gender and sexual identities within same-sex relationships.
Instead, the traditional gender and sexual scripts serve to maintain heteronormativity in romantic relationships (Clawson, 2005) and fail to recognize the range of scripts that lesbians actually enact. Rose and Zand (2002) found that the most commonly used romance script involved developing a friendship before developing a romance. Thus, the focus on sexually-based romance scripts and the absence of friendship-based romance in these texts fail to build on a strength that lesbians commonly bring to their intimate relationships. (161)


Cook, Jennifer R., Sharon S. Rostosky and Ellen D. B. Riggle. "Gender Role Models in Fictional Novels for Emerging Adult Lesbians." Journal of Lesbian Studies, 17:2 (2013): 150-166. [Abstract]