It can sometimes feel as though our collective cultural response to the infamous question ‘what do women want?’ is a disinterested shrug and a muttered ‘who cares?’ While women’s desires have for centuries been ignored and disregarded, the heterosexual male gaze remains the dominant cultural imperative. The result has been, and largely continues to be, the production of fictional narratives in which women are objectified by men and sexual control is substituted for affection.
In recent years, a small but growing body of media has begun to emerge that rejects this cultural norm, frankly and shamelessly centring the female gaze. Among the most subversive cultural products in this tradition is Melbourne writer CS Pacat’s Captive Prince trilogy, the third book of which, Kings Rising, will be released on 2 February.
A plot summary cannot do these smart, inventive and incredibly sexy homoerotic slave novels justice, but let’s have a crack: Damianos is a warrior and the crown prince of Akielos. After his illegitimate half-brother kills their father, he is exiled and presented as a gift to the neighbouring kingdom of Vere, renamed and disguised as a slave, Damen. There, he is bound in the service of Laurent, the Veretian crown prince. Have your eyes glazed over yet? So far, so familiar: the bones of the plot might appear to blur into any number of historical fantasy epics that feature determinedly impenetrable political systems, Shakespearean family betrayals, and a litany of oddly-named characters and places.
What differentiates the Captive Prince books from conventional historical fantasy is their unapologetic homoeroticism. Veretian culture is oriented around and saturated in homosexuality – bastard children are so reviled by Veretian nobility that all intimate relationships outside of wedlock are resolutely homosexual, to preclude the possibility of an illegitimate pregnancy. The country’s debauched politics and cultural mores are reflected in its popular forms of entertainment (the court’s gladiatorial mano e mano matches end with the victor raping his conquest) and its social structures (the nobility keep sex slaves of the same gender, affectionately known as ‘pets’ – terminology borrowed from the real-world S&M community). Even in battle, the relentless formality of war is charged with the hypermasculine eroticism of the soldiers’ interactions.
The books’ central sexual dynamic is the emergent attraction between Damen and Laurent, sworn enemies on a national and personal scale (Vere and Akielos are fractious neighbours; Damen killed Laurent’s older brother in battle some years ago, a fact that would sign his death warrant if his true identity were revealed). They are opposites both in character and in appearance: Damen is a dark-skinned, physically-imposing but emotionally inarticulate warrior; Laurent is fair, lithe and Machiavellian, his silver tongue and golden hair beacons for assassination attempts.
If none of this sounds particularly realistic, Captive Prince is still far more convincing than many accomplished fantasy novels. The homoerotic foreshadowing and political set pieces may feel predictable or familiar, but Pacat builds fluently on her readers’ collective cultural knowledge and goes beyond it. Occurrences such as the murder of a brother (a recurring motif) are used as a launching pad for interrogations of cultural and racial differences, all coded within the mores and movements of the two fictional warring kingdoms. As the best fantasy writing does, the books allow and encourage multiple layers of interpretation: the imagined world reflects our own cultural accomplishments and shortcomings back to us.
The Captive Prince books were initially posted serially online for free, but soon drew a cult following. Pacat then self-published the first two books, topped several Amazon categories, and eventually signed a deal with Penguin’s local and international publishing divisions. Book one, Captive Prince, was published by Penguin in April last year, while book two, Prince’s Gambit, followed shortly after in June. The impending final book is heavily embargoed, its publication accompanied by the kind of frenzied speculation familiar to anyone who grew up anticipating the next midnight release of a Harry Potter book.
While Pacat’s depiction of homonormativity – an entire civilisation where heterosexuality not only is not the dominant orientation, but is largely regarded as aberrant – is revolutionary in mainstream genre fiction, she is by no means the first writer to challenge the male gaze via fictionalised homosexual relationships. Queer writers have been working in complex ways to destabilise heteronormative and patriarchal gazes for many years. While the mainstream female gaze is still working to catch up, Pacat has leapt ahead of the pack. Her books, which owe a clear debt to fictional engagements with the queer gaze, also fit comfortably within a broader online tradition. The success of Pacat’s books emerges from hugely popular online communities dedicated to slash fiction, that is, stories focusing on sexual and romantic relationships between same sex characters, most often taking the form of male/male pairings written and read primarily by heterosexual women.
The ability of women to confidently own unconventional desires, such as an attraction to homoerotic material, developed notably with the parallel rise of digital communication platforms and third-wave feminism. Together, these led to the creation of safe, private spaces for the exploration of non-normative female desire, both in visual (gay pornography) and written (slash fiction) forms. And as loyal, vocal advocates for Pacat’s story, Captive Prince’s early readers were instrumental in driving its impressive sales and passionate fandom from publication day.
Why have heterosexual women responded so strongly to this particular homosexual story? The Captive Prince books are indulgent and fun and pacy and raunchy, but also cleverly and artfully constructed. Few books are as unabashedly erotic – not only in the sex scenes but in myriad aspects of the culture depicted – yet also demonstrate a consummate skill for world-building. Pacat balances plot and titillation impeccably, demonstrating a preternatural ability to engage with the reader’s desires. As she noted ahead of the second book’s publication, ‘People are beginning to understand the female market not only exists, but its economic potential is enormous.’
This is no doubt true, and is broadly cause for celebration. However, in their shameless attempts to extract the disposable incomes of the lucrative female market, the creators of popular culture don’t always get it right. Two frequently cited recent examples of the female gaze in action are the Magic Mike films and the TV adaption of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander books. Both are laudable for their forthright approach to female sexuality, but their depictions are imperfect. They are fundamentally limited by both the inability to conceive of a female gaze that is not merely an inversion of the male gaze, and a failure to realistically portray sexual dynamics that do not exist in response and relation to traditional heterosexual relationships.
Somewhat ironically, the male gaze has traditionally disregarded the very women whose bodies are its focus. To replicate these patterns in forms of entertainment dedicated to the female gaze is to perpetuate the unfortunate and erroneous assumption that those who possess a form of power (sexual, in this case) will use it only to dominate, rather than to engage.
Take Magic Mike XXL, the hugely successful sequel to Magic Mike and the chick-flick of choice for sexually-oriented hen’s night excursions in 2015. The actions and options of the protagonists, a group of male strippers, are largely determined by the women who pay for their services. The film’s denouement takes place at a male stripping convention where women toss crumpled dollar notes at their g-stringed butts. These oiled, gleaming hunks can be viewed as a despair-inducing mirroring of the male gaze. They are an inverted perpetuation of patriarchy’s refusal to view women as independent, individual sexual beings, of a culture that calculates a body’s worth and strength only by what superficial satisfaction it can offer to others. Reversing the culture’s prevailing gendered exploitation does not magically result in gender equality, and critically it underestimates the complexity and diversity of female desire. Male characters need not be divested of agency and reduced to purely sexual objects in order to arouse the female viewer.
The Outlander series also possesses seemingly refreshing sexual politics, and a female gaze that is instructive, if imperfect. As Jodi McAlister has written for Overland, both Gabaldon’s books and their TV adaptation present a version of the female gaze that is purportedly derived from the female protagonist’s pleasure, celebrating ‘communicative, caring and mutually participatory sex’ that is also rigorously consensual. But Outlander still hews closely to heteronormative notions of desire and intimacy, in which the masculinity of the male love interest, Jamie, is central to his appeal. Protagonist Claire is repeatedly threatened with rape by secondary male characters, and Jamie is eventually raped and tortured by another man at the climax of the first season. It seems that even when an everywoman is lucky enough to have two loving, sexually generous husbands in different centuries, the possibility of sexual violence and degradation does not abate.
This is not to suggest that Outlander’s references to rape or Magic Mike’s inverted objectification invalidate them as examples of the female gaze. The female gaze is not a single, uniform entity, and there is no one emblem of universal female desire. Capitalist fantasies of attractive males whose affections can be bought are understandably appealing to many women; as is the prospect of wielding total sexual power over Channing Tatum and his jawline. Conversely, fears and fantasies around domination and sexual assault are a significant part of women’s erotic landscape in a patriarchal culture.
The figure of a sexually dominant male is both embodied and subverted in Pacat’s protagonists. Both characters demonstrate assert aggressive forms of masculinity, yet are beloved by her predominantly heterosexual female readers. Laurent is unknowable and cold, aloof and distant in the way of many powerful literary heartthrobs (hello Mr Rochester, hello Mr Darcy). With the balancing element of Damen’s physical strength and difficulty in articulating his own feelings, the former’s highly masculine callousness is tempered, allowing for a mutual dominance and servitude that is fundamentally respectful of both characters and readers – and very sexy.
Much of the appeal of Captive Prince lies in the malleability of its erotic imagination; despite the many references to the princes’ physical characteristics (Damon: dark, buff, surly; Laurent: blonde, fine-boned, icy), Pacat is a smart enough writer to leave plenty between them unsaid. Readers are able to craft their own mental staging of the characters’ interactions, one that fits their individual proclivities and desires. Both Damen and Laurent’s official sexual orientations are ambiguous enough to allow even the most resolutely heterosexual female reader to project herself in between them. In falling a little for each of the two protagonists, the reader occupies for a time the emotional perspective of both the object and subject of desire: by inhabiting both viewpoints fully, she gains control over the fantasy.
The true female gaze exists on its own terms, and it is this principle that CS Pacat so successfully draws on in the Captive Prince trilogy. In the process, she advances and deepens the evolution of the gaze. Her male characters may be oiled and gleaming hunks (at least in my imagination) but they are never passive ciphers. Rather, they are thinking, feeling, deeply flawed men who are ruled equally by their hearts, brains and dicks. The books use the master-slave relationship to engage and critique sexual power dynamics, and interrogate ideas of what constitutes consent, while encouraging readers to both objectify and celebrate the male characters. For that, they deserve to be read widely – and not just by women.
Image: jason train / Flickr