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A Billion Times Told Lovelier: Skating and the Erotic Romance Writer

I hadn’t expected to spend last week glued to the TV set watching the Winter Olympics, But like so many, I became fascinated by the spectacle of youth, athleticism, luck, valor, and catching the moment. While as for skateboarders, which aging hippie mom couldn’t love them?

Still, men’s figure skating is special. At least to a romance writer who spends so much of her time pondering the array of cultural images of maleness available to us — or (perhaps, as they say in certain far reaches of the academy) in contention.

Michael and I haven’t watched this sport for years — perhaps mourning for our favorite, the brilliant skater maudit Christopher Bowman, who died of an accidental drug overdose at age 40 in 2008, but who’d left skating years before.

Bowman’s performances were uneven but transcendent. Is it pretentious to refer to “the achieve of, the mastery of the thing” when talking of Bowman? Hell, I’m allowed; it’s the web — and check him out on youtube at 21 and at the top of his game, if you don’t believe me.

There’s a particular kind of theatricality associated with gender. Maleness and femaleness are learned arts, or crafts, or skills, or a life’s work. In skating, where we want our characters both attractive and highly skilled — and absolutely there in the moment — these things get writ large. But because there’s a kind of inevitable prettiness and grace to gliding around the ice (which in past years male skaters have done their damnedest to deny had anything to do with queerness), these things seem to get writ larger when men compete.

And even larger when some brave (and also profoundly skilled and talented) competitor says stops denying who he is.

Because during the years when Michael and I weren’t watching, it seems that Johnny Weir burst onto the scene. Here. Queer. Brilliant. A joy to watch and “a billion times told lovelier, more dangerous”.

There are people who know skating (and understand the new rules) think that Weir was cheated in the judging. A Facebook friend linked to this blog post, which seems to me utterly convincing, even though I’m an idiot about the technicalities.

But it seems important too.

Somehow, Johnny Weir was so outside the box that the judges could get away with (as the blogger sort of put it) marking him down even though he was technically equal to the winners.

And yet I have to believe that he wasn’t so much outside the box but a major part of what made the box bigger and more interesting — what made for room for the beautifully Michael-Jackson-inflected Japanese skaters and that even mades you take a different view of the power-politics-on-ice of a Yevgeny Plushenko (note to my brilliantly well-informed skating maven friend, romance writer Doreen DeSalvo: were those kisses Plushenko was throwing in the free-skate program perhaps Weir-isms?)

I have to admit that I’m so fascinated by this stuff because I’ve been fascinated by the suddenly much broader range of what’s possible in romance fiction. Male/male romance for women! What’s up with that? How does it work? What’s allowed that wasn’t before, and what was always waiting under the surface waiting to be allowed? Not, you understand, so much hidden homosexuality (or not always) as much as a range of gesture and self-presentation that finds a million ways to proclaim itself male or even-hyper or alpha male but anything but queer.

As a historical romance writer I’m particularly interested in re-tellings of well-known stories that could always have had a shadow element, a hidden Johnny Weir factor, like Ann Herendeen’s Pride/Prejudice, which finally discloses what Mr. Darcy ever saw in Mr. Bingley, or Alex Beecroft’s False Colors, that revisits the Aubrey-Maturin sagas.

But this is only a very rough beginning, musings in search of a theory, pre-preparations for the paper I’ll be delivering at the International Association of Popular Romance Studies (IASPR) conference this summer in Belgium.

You’ll be hearing more about that, of course, but meanwhile, let’s prepare ourselves for Women’s Figure Skating this week. Will it be as interesting, do you think? Or do we need our own Johnny Weir?


  1. Pam-loved this post! And this part: ‘There’s a particular kind of theatricality associated with gender. Maleness and femaleness are learned arts, or crafts, or skills, or a life’s work.’ made me think immediately of a film called Stage Beauty. Not sure if you’ve seen it, and perhaps my mind going there is too literal a translation of your blog post to be useful, but the film emphasizes that particular point.
    I’m glad for people like Johnny Weir who challenge people’s (often close-minded) perceptions of what gender is, those all-too specific definitions that leave no room for individuality. Why can’t men be beautiful and graceful and still desirable?
    I’ve been writing some m/m and f/f erotica and erotic romance, and am grateful to those publishers who are willing to take a chance with material that’s outside the boundaries of what most people think of as romance fiction. And the m/m in particular sells like mad! I’m still wondering what statement this makes about society and about romance readers-it may be too soon to tell.
    I’m sorry I’ll miss your talk in Belgium-fascinating topic!

  2. Im thinking about the same stuff you are, Eden. And Stage Beauty is definitely a case in point.

    It is a fascinating topic. I’m thrilled to be presenting on it, and I know it’ll be influencing my writing.

  3. Thought-provoking as always, Pam.

    The brilliance of Johnny Weir is not only that he is willing to be Out There, but that he is wholly his own person. So many skaters perform the programs choreographed by others, wearing costumes crafted by others. Even their hair styles are concocted by others, in many cases.

    Weir steps onto the ice proudly his own man, saying “This is who I am. Love me or hate me, as you will.” To me, it’s the ultimate confidence, and it’s much what Bowman brought the the sport in his heyday. (Sad side note: I saw Christopher Bowman in his last public appearance at a professional skating competition in Little Rock, Arkansas, circa 1996).

    As for the ladies, look for Huna Kim of South Korea, Mao Asado of Japan, and Elena Gedevanishvili of Georgia for some excitement.

  4. Huna Kim and Mao Asado were fantastic — demon spawn of Buffy and Faith. I missed Gedevanishvili. But still, the range of expressive possibility seems wider among the men. I miss the Hanna-Shygulla mature earthiness of a Katerina Witt.

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