I’ll freely admit it: I love reading romance novels. I don’t really make any pretence at being one of those people who only ever read great literary works – I read fiction for fun, and I loathe Dickens, and while there are plenty of brilliant classics and worthy tomes, as far as I’m concerned, Georgette Heyer is just as valid as Tolstoy, and each to their own (I will judge you for liking Ulysses, though).
Having said that, being one of those dreadful feminist types, I sometimes find it hard to really balance feminism and romance novels. There isn’t really a Bechdel test for books – the original version pretty much suffices, to be fair – but I’m also in agreement with Alicia Aho’s blog on a Bechdel Test for romance novels – that it needs a little tweaking, but the essential still holds. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a precisely feminist romance novel – could you imaging the arguments over it? Would the heroine acknowledge her cis-gendered priviledge? Are lurid descriptions of sex exploitative? – but I would definitely argue that they aren’t mutually exclusive; they cater for women’s tastes in erotica, and that is feminist.
I’ve been thinking though – always dangerous, that – about romance novels and disability. In terms of heroes (men-identified cis-gendered primary protagonists? Sorry.), disability is not uncommon; thier disability is usually the result of injury. In the heroine, psychological trauma of some variety is usually featured instead of a physical disability – trauma that is usually healed by The Cock and/or The Power of Love.
I don’t make any claims to having read an exhaustive number of romance novels. I haven’t. I tend to re-read the ones I do have – I should join the library instead – but so far I’ve read two with a disabled heroine.
The first – Christine Feehan’s Dark Symphony, part of the larger Dark Carpathians series, which I adore. The heroine was blinded in a tragic accident, but she is a Super Crip, and has overcome this to become famous. And then the hero rolls up, saves her life, and then she gets her sight back after they have lots of sex, because this is a fantasy paranomal romance about vampires and shit, and they’re made for each other and all that. I don’t care, it’s still a brilliant book, but I kind of wish Antoinetta had stayed blind. But they shag anyway.
The second is much older – it was published in 1984 – Sophie Weston’s No Man’s Possession. The heroine is disabled through an accident – which ruins everything and she becomes a secretary. Because that’s what women do, especially when their fiances leave them because the’ve become cripples, and they’re heroines in a Mills & Boon paperback. Awesome. She then takes a job where she goes to Venice, and fancies her employer, and he fancies her, but he’s very mysterious and brooding, so she quits when he comes onto her. Then – miracle of miracles – she is sent to a hospital in Switzerland (the glamour) and she is cured and she gets her life back – and her former employer is her doctor who saves her and loves her and they get engaged and they haven’t had sex once. She tries – albeit vaguely – to be an independant, strong woman, but ultimately she is saved by a big strong man and is no longer crippled.
But you know what? Once, just once, I’d like there to be a disabled heroine who is not cured. Who stays disabled, despite the power of cock/love/man, and is loved nonetheless, who is strong nonetheless (but is not once of those long-suffering Heroic-Tragic Crip types, because that is a particularly disappointing stereotype). I want a feminist heroine, who happens to be disabled, who enjoys sex and love and romance, and a hero who respect her and fancies her and fucks her several ways until sunday (and is fucked in return).
I’m asking too much, aren’t I?