A Guest Post by Ruth Madison, author of (W)hole.
Why do we read romance novels? It’s a huge market and yet not many people admit to reading them. They are a guilty pleasure. I think because we’re afraid people will think we’re dumb or naive for enjoying the unrealistic and overly romantic notions of love in these books. Yet even the most grounded of us seem to get something deeply satisfying from sappy stories of true love and people finding the perfect partner for them.
These books are pure fantasy. They are what we wish love would be and I know I’m always embarrassed to be caught reading them, fearing that people will think I’m “simple” enough to believe that this is how love works.
Yet reading about people falling in love and being happy satisfies a very deep part of our psyches. Some of the joy of the experience is reading about men that we would find powerfully attractive in real life. We can imagine ourselves as the heroine in the story and can feel that love we want when we see the characters getting closer.
There are legions of different romance genre niches because there are so many different kinds of men that we all find attractive. There are some things that are so nearly universal that we don’t think about it. Historical romances with their gentlemanly, charming, aloof heroes. Western romances with their tough cowboys who are hiding vulnerable hearts. Contemporary romances with their slick business men. These archetypes call to something inside of us and being connected to the heroine who tames these men feels great.
Some of us have unusual attractions, though. What happens when your ideal man, the one that you want to read about finding love, is not physically appealing to the majority of women? We might get dismissed and looked down upon as deviants or fetishists when we enjoy wounded hero romance.
People will get very defensive if caught reading books with heroes who have physical disabilities. They will justify it in all sorts of ways, always making sure to claim that it is not a fetish thing. Well, for me it is. I know why I like these so-called “imperfect” heroes (who, in my opinion are absolutely perfect). They are the men of my fantasies. I will proudly say that I read and I write romances about men who are physically disabled.
Is it because I have the desire to have power over men? Is it because I’m afraid of men and want to dominate and control them? No. There are other romance genres for that. I’m interested in strong men who are dealing with the unique challenges of disability. They have to examine and think about how they define themselves as men, since the world wants to desexualize them and tell them that they are less manly because of their impairments. I enjoy seeing men fight back against that stereotype.
Not all people who enjoy these books are like me. Some may also enjoy these romances just to see a different kind of hero. The term “imperfect” hero came about, I believe, because some people were tired of reading about men who were completely and utterly perfect in every way with no vulnerability, no flaws, no humanity. The muscled guy who went to Harvard and was on the rowing team and now makes billions of dollars and still has perfect abs is not my kind of hero.
However, there are sensitive issues that writing about people who have disabilities brings up and how can I, as an author, stay sensitive to them? Am I just stereotyping them in a different way? Am I using someone’s real life struggles for my own pleasure? Is making the people I am attracted to into romance heroes a disservice to them?
No one seems to worry about the feelings of the men stereotyped in other genre romances. We read books with naked male torsos on the cover where you can’t even see the faces of these men. No one says that we’re being insensitive to these men. What makes disability different?
Part of it is that with disability there is the sense that these people need protecting. They need to be saved from being the fantasy of people like me. This is a way that non-disabled people infantilize adults who have disabilities. But there’s also a very real reason wounded hero romance is different.
In real life the traditionally attractive guy doesn’t have negative experiences connected with that. He is pretty much on top of the world. Disability brings a lot of other social issues with it connected to being a marginalized group.
The important thing, to me, is that the authors who write wounded hero romance books must be well versed in disability issues and civil rights. They must study and research and know the dangers of how people with disabilities are often portrayed badly by non-disabled writers. As an author of wounded hero romance, I have a responsibility to portray the disabled characters in ways that will not harm the overall fight for equal rights that people who have physical disabilities are currently fighting in real life.
So, I say, let’s enjoy our fantasies and never be ashamed of what kind of guys we find appealing, but also remember that the men we dream about have real lives and deserve our respect both in life and on the page.
Please visit Ruth at her website.