Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Disability Studies Reads the Romance

Ria Cheyne's latest article, "Disability Studies Reads the Romance" is out now in issue 7.1 of the Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies. The article explores the depiction of disability in a selection of romance novels. This is a rather understudied area of both popular romance studies and disability studies:
Cultural disability studies scholars have repeatedly criticized academics in the humanities for perpetuating a “critical avoidance” (Bolt) of disability and disability issues. Yet cultural disability studies scholars themselves have been reluctant to engage with certain types of cultural production, and romance novels are a prime example of this. As the most popular of the popular genres, romance novels are an obvious site of investigation for a field concerned with the effects that representations of disability have upon the world. Though recent articles by Kathleen Miller, Emily Baldys, and Sandra Schwab indicate the productive potential of a dialogue between disability studies and popular romance studies, the critical conversation about disability in romance novels has only just begun. Focusing on selected novels by Mary Balogh, a bestselling author of historical romance, I argue that romances with disabled protagonists offer significant opportunities to challenge negative stereotypes around disability. (37)
Cheyne focuses on "the six books in the Slightly series (published 2003–04),
and the Simply quartet (2005–08)" (39) and argues that,
In the context of a contemporary culture in which there is “a pervasive cultural de-eroticization of people with disabilities” (Mollow and McRuer 4), the emphasis placed on the development of a sexually satisfying relationship is significant. Anna Mollow and Robert McRuer note the “segregation” of “sex and disability” in “dominant cultural representations” (2). Depicting disabled heroes and heroines in satisfying sexual relationships and as erotic agents, as Balogh does, challenges this segregation. [...] More broadly, the depiction of disabled characters achieving the HEA is significant in a society still dominated by tragedy-model perspectives and thus ambivalent about whether disabled people are worthy or desiring of love. (40)
She also addresses the question of whether disabled secondary characters are marginalised and/or used as "yardsticks" to measure the tolerance, good nature etc of non-disabled primary characters.
Cheyne, Ria. "Disability Studies Reads the Romance." Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 7.1 (2013): 37–52.


  1. Sounds like an interesting article, though I have personal experience of disability and I hated the Balogh books and thought they ended up promoting some very negative ideas about it. Her disabled characters end up deserving love through being perfect, noble heroes and effectively overcoming all their limitations. This is particularly visible in "Simply Love", where Syd puts inhuman effort in learning to do everything by himself, and the heroine finishes his healing by getting him to paint.

    Given the current frequent representation of disabled people as "shirkers" or "cheaters" in public rhetoric, I felt that those books effectively reinforce the idea that disabled people are worthy only if you work triple-hard to overcome your limitations and become "normal" and "perfect" contributing member of the society, which was very disturbing.

    I haven't read the full article, so this response is more to the quotes selected than to the work itself.

    1. Hi MD, in the article I was (primarily) writing for a disability studies audience that has generally been pretty dismissive of popular fiction – assuming that it simply reinforces the negative stereotypes, beliefs etc already circulating in society, and thus contributes to the further oppression of disabled people. So I tried to highlight the productive potentials some romances might have in terms of challenging negative beliefs – the larger goal being to demonstrate that popular romance novels might be interesting for disability studies scholars (and vice versa!). Potentials is the key word here – I’m certainly not arguing that all readers will interpret the novels as I do.

      Re. Sydnam, it sounds like one point where my interpretation differs from yours is in the question of what exactly is overcome in Simply Love. Although I don't go into this in detail in the article, I would argue that with Sydnam that it's less his disability that's overcome (impairment in social model terms) than his internalised oppression, the negative attitudes he holds towards himself because of his injuries. Of course these beliefs themselves are the product of a disabling society...

  2. I'm in the opposite position to you since I've read the article but not the novels it discusses. That means that I can't really comment on this particular set of novels, but I wonder if Ria's approach to analysing genre fiction might be useful here.

    One of the things she does which I thought was very helpful was to approach the texts both individually and as part of a very large genre with particular conventions. One example from her essay involves the depiction of secondary characters who are disabled: it might be argued that they're marginalised if they appear primarily in order to help the plot along. That might be true, but Ria argues that one also has to bear in mind the extent to which all secondary characters are marginalised in a genre which has a very strong focus on a central couple.

    That's an example of a case where invoking the genre's conventions may work to exonerate the text from accusations of bias. However, I think there are other times when examining a text's depiction of disability in the context of the genre's conventions may raise important questions about the biases of the conventions themselves.

    For example, it strikes me that romance as a whole very often portrays as admirable those who are "'perfect' contributing member[s] of the society" depicted in the novels. Just to take an example, there are the heroines who are perfect mothers, housewives and contributors to their local communities and who feel dauntingly "perfect" to me. And there are the heroes who were born into poverty but have somehow become billionaire tycoons by the time they're in their early thirties. So I wonder if, in cases where a protagonist is disabled, the genre's conventions may compound/contribute to the push to make him/her seem "worthy" by showing her/him "overcoming all their limitations."

    I also think there's a tendency in the genre for romantic love to be depicted as a transformational emotion which makes people complete. Most obviously, debauched rakes suddenly become happily monogamous and respectable members of society thanks to the love of a virgin. Where disability is concerned, there's been a tendency, perhaps more so in the past than now, for love to be depicted as a cure for disabilities. I have a feeling this might have been particularly true of blind protagonists who regained their sight as they found True Love. So perhaps the depiction of Syd's painting owes something to that tradition.

    I suspect there are quite a lot of romance conventions which have unexplored ideological baggage.

  3. I agree that what Balogh is trying to do is to show that Sydham needs to overcome internal oppression. My problem is that the book makes it be that the way to overcome that internal oppression is to overcome all your physical limitations. At which point this is both unrealistic and reinforcing of the current negative stereotypes (that often hold that if you are not "getting on with your life" and achieving amazing things, then you are no longer worthy).

    I also think Rita is exactly right that Balogh uses other character's reactions to disabled people to effectively judge their worthiness. But I had a different reaction to it. I felt that the point was hammered in a way that effectively made the secondary characters entirely defined by their disability -- they are not there as people, but as placeholders by which the other characters are judged.

    But then, I also dislike romances with "perfect" heroes and heroines that Laura describes, and want nuanced characterization. And I think there are enough romances that avoid the "perfection" trap despite the conventions, so they should be able to do it with disability as well. Which is not necessarily what literary criticism is looking for, yet - it's true that having potentials at least is good ;-)