As I said in this post, I promised a long while back that I would put my Eroticon slides up here, for the benefit of people who weren’t able to attend, as well as those who want to refer back to them for any reason.
The slides can be accessed by clicking on the link below, and the bullet points underneath summarise what I said in the session. Below that, you’ll find the reading list I handed out, a TED talk I think everyone should watch, and below that, two posts that I know were written after my session. If anyone else has written anything disability related as a result of my session, or if you choose to have a go at the exercise at the end of the presentation, please do let me know and I’ll link your piece up to this post, if you’d like me to.
Session notes and slides
- Start by trying to identify what the author is trying to say about disabled people in each of the books/films on slide 2. The answers are on slide 3. All of these are ways in which disabled people have historically been portrayed in fiction which should now be avoided.
- Look at the TED talks on slide 4. All, with the exception of ‘I’m not your inspiration, thank you very much,’ have the keywords inspiring, fascinating, courageous, beautiful. These are the words able-bodied people tend to associate with disability – but ‘inspiration porn’ is just as damaging as any of the old-fashioned stereotypes, because it treats disabled people as examples, not as people.
- Slide 6 shows why The Theory of Everything is a great example of how to write disability (although it’s important to be aware that some disabled people object to the use of an able-bodied actor to play Hawking). Stephen Hawking has more than one challenge in his life – the conflict in the story centres not only around his disability, but also his relationship and job. i wrote about the film in more detail here.
- Don’t be tempted to make disability the character arc in your novel – very few disabled people do get cured, or end their lives, or completely come to terms with their body in the space of the time period covered by a novel or short story. Make disability part of their character, but not a part that necessarily has to be resolved or changed. Give them a plot other than their disability.
- Slide 11 is the intro to a writing exercise using this amazing Girl on the Net guest post as a prompt. Look at how in the post intro, Girl on the Net doesn’t focus on the disability at all – the writer is disabled, but the focus is the lift, the snogging, the botanical gardens. Do any of these things inspire you? Can you take the post as a starting point and flesh it out to make it a full length short story or piece of flash fiction with a plot arc, rather than a vignette, as per the original post?
10 Things Fiction Writers Need to Remember About Disability (1-5) http://blobolobolob.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/10-things-fiction-writers-need-to.html
10 Things Fiction Writers Need to Remember About Disability (6-10) http://blobolobolob.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/10-things-fiction-writers-need-to_10.html
Dear able-bodied partner…
Every body: glamour, dateability, sexuality & disability | Dr. Danielle Sheypuk | TEDxBarnardCollege
Getting it wrong – writing disability in fiction
I am not here to inspire you
Kaufman, M, Silverberg, C, and Odette, F. The Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability: For All of Us Who Live with Disabilities, Chronic Pain, and Illness, Cleis, 2007
Know me where it hurts: sex, kink, and cerebral palsy
Leandra Vane – disability & sex stigma
Moving beyond the stereotypes
Silent stares and rude questions: the disability minefield
Why we have to create more disabled characters in children’s fiction (yes, it’s about children’s fiction, but the advice at the end applies more widely)
Writing the Other
Stella Young: I’m not your inspiration, thank you very much
Posts inspired by the session
Unusual Liaison – Rachel Kincaid
Disability and sexuality – writers we love: Hot Octopuss
A month or so a go, I noticed that Sainsbury’s was stocking mini eggs again. ‘Oh good,’ I thought (even though I bloody love a mini egg), ‘We’ve finally lost it completely. Easter now starts in July.’
It doesn’t. Instead, Cadbury have launched the dubiously named Wini eggs in honour of the Paralympic Games, which, if it wasn’t for chocolate, might pretty much have passed me by.
Except they wouldn’t, obviously, because even though I have no interest in sport, I fully expect that in September, bullshit like this:
will be replaced by bullshit like this (also, why is the ‘F’ in ‘firmly’ and ‘B’ in ‘believe’ capitalised? You can’t emphasise something just by capitalising the first letter of random words!):
Being part of a body- and sex-positive community is great. It means that most of the stuff above gets called out, retweeted, mocked, and generally shown to be not okay. I can’t help but feel that the same is not true when it comes ableism, which, believe me, you will see in spades once the paralympics start.
In May, after Eroticon, I promised that I would put my slides up here if people wanted to see them. Several people said they did, but I completely forgot, and so now I want to do a deal. I will put the slides up here, along with a brief summary of what I said, a video everybody should watch and a couple of great posts written by people who came to my session. In return, whether you’re able-bodied or not, please don’t mindlessly retweet inspiration porn during the games. It is perfectly okay to be inspired by disabled athletes, and it would be perfectly fine to tweet something like the below about an athlete whether they were disabled or not.
What’s not okay is the following:
a) Isn’t that person amazing for someone with a disability? (No, they’re amazing full stop)
b) Wow, if that person can do that even though they have a disability, I can definitely make a sandwich/go to the gym/ask that guy out/do couch to 5k (No, this is not about you and your life, it’s about them and their achievements)
In fact, go one better than not retweeting it. Flag it up. Make it known it’s ableist as fuck. The disabled community does this all the time. It’s exhausting and emotionally draining, and it takes a lot out of people. Like it or not, the able-bodied community is bigger and better able to make itself heard. So support us, and respond to this just as you would homophobia or sexism.
I’ll put the Eroticon stuff here.
It could be a coincidence. It could be merely fluke that three weeks ago I walked into a cinema showing Me Before You relatively relaxed, calm and at ease with myself and left it shattered and tearful; descending within days into a depression so sudden and severe I’m still struggling to drag myself out of bed in the morning; my desire to live completely sapped.
I should clarify: I don’t blame Jojo Moyes’ now world-famous story for my recent mental health crisis. I do blame it for forcing me to confront hard truths about how I see disability and love, in a way that I’m not wholly comfortable with a book about disability written by an able-bodied author doing.
When I spoke at Eroticon back in May, I said that I didn’t think writing disability should be the preserve of the disabled, and I think I still agree with that. I also read out this quote, from Susie Day: “If yours is the first time a reader has met a fictional someone “like them”, it’s almost inevitable that you will disappoint.” And oh my, how Me Before You has disappointed the disabled community.
The conversation around the book has been too lengthy and too nuanced for me to replicate all of the arguments here. At the risk of massively oversimplifying, most of the backlash has come from the fact that Will, the book’s protagonist, tells his carer, Lou, to ‘Live Boldly,’ just before he travels to Dignitas to end his own life. The implication? That ‘living boldly’ is something only the able-bodied are entitled to. If you are interested in the various commentary from the disabled community, Kim Sauder has an excellent round-up post here.
I recognise why the book is problematic based on the above, and yet, at my lowest, I fall very much into the ‘some people actually feel that way,’ camp, which, you know what? Makes me feel guilty as fuck.
I’m a firm believer that the relationship between how you feel about your body and your level of (dis)ability is not linear. That is to say: there will be some people who are para- or quadriplegic and feel every day that life is worth living, just as there will be some of us who, in comparison, look essentially ablebodied, but struggle hugely to accept our bodies the way they are.
So going in to Me Before You, knowing in advance how it ended (thanks, mum!), I thought I’d be able to handle it. I thought I was personally far more able to deal with the reaction to disability that I share than I would be with a plot line that essentially saw a man whose condition left him suicidal saved by the love of a good woman.
Oh, how wrong was I?
Books are funny things. Stories are strange. In real life, we want to believe we’re rational, sophisticated creatures who won’t be satisfied with a trite, neat little ending that goes against how we see things play out in the real world (or I do, anyway). And yet, when it comes down to it, a book which doesn’t follow the conventions laid down over centuries of literature can be strangely unsettling. When I said I was planning on ending my own novel, which is about a relationship between two people who are clearly terrible for each other, with the woman leaving and realising that she’s just fine on her own, someone in my writing group warned (rightly, I think): ‘People are going to be disappointed, you know. They’re going to expect a happily ever after.’
I scorn the happily ever after. Or, more accurately, it makes me uneasy. Do I think #liveboldly should be confined to the ablebodied? No, but that’s easy for me to say, when I’m fundamentally independent despite my disability: I live alone, I travel, I drive, I work. Do I think #happilyeverafter, in a romantic sense, is the preserve of the able? I’m afraid I do, yes. I don’t expect to find someone who’ll love me in spite of the disability.
So I needed Me Before You to tell me otherwise. I needed it, there in that popcorn-scented, slightly grubby Vue, to promise that I could find love, and not only that I could find it, but that it would be enough for me to forgive myself, to find peace. And it let me down.
Will finds love. He falls in love with Lou. Lou falls in love with him. But for Will, it’s not quite enough: it’s not the powerful, executive, highly-sexed, action-sport-heavy life he led before the accident that caused his quadriplegia, and he picks the assisted-suicide route anyway. It broke my heart.
What did I want Me Before You to be, on a personal level? Did I want it to represent me, and the way I see the world? I don’t know. Maybe. But I think more than that, I wanted it to lie to me. I wanted it to tell me that love could save me. Because unless he’s out there, and he can love me first, how the hell am I supposed to do the same?
‘The first man was small and quick, dark of face, with restless eyes and sharp, strong features. Every part of him was defined: small, strong hands, slender arms, a thin and bony nose. Behind him walked his opposite, a huge man, shapeless of face, with large, pale eyes, and wide, sloping shoulders; and he walked heavily, dragging his feet a little, the way a bear drags his paws. His arms did not swing at his sides, but hung loosely.’
John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men
When you have a sex blog, even a sort of sex blog, there are some things you should probably never write about. Politics is one of them. And yet, somehow, here I am writing about Michael Gove, and it’s not even the first time.
Ever since last Thursday’s referendum, and more so since yesterday when he announced he was planning to run for leader of the Conservative party, Twitter is, mainly rightly, I think, out to ridicule him.
And that’s fine. Ridicule him for having no charisma. Ridicule him twice as hard for *admitting* that he has no charisma. Wonder why the fuck someone who has repeatedly said that he has no desire, and none of the necessary qualities, to be Prime Minister, has now entered the contest to be just that. Hate what he did when he was Secretary of State for Education. Hate what he did in Justice. Laugh at the fact his wife implied that sex with him was no less of a chore than putting out the bins.
But poking fun at the way he claps or the way he drinks a glass of water? Can we just not?
The joke, most often, is that his ‘human suit is slipping.’
So far, so not so terrible. This man is awful, it says, this man is not a person, he’s an animal, or a monster, or something else entirely. But you know what? I think that maybe, just maybe, liberal Twitter is just looking for a socially acceptable way of saying ‘Doesn’t he look, y’know, a bit … special?’
Because personally, I think that when you mock the way a person does something physical – the way they walk, clap, drink, sit – you’re straying dangerously close to ableist territory. I don’t know why Michael Gove claps the way he does, and I’ll agree that yes, it looks pretty silly, but it also looks like the kind of thing I’d do either in a desperate attempt to stay awake, if I was drifting off in a boring meeting, or because I couldn’t clap like a ‘normal’ person (I can’t, as it happens).
The women among us especially hate when the media does this to female politicians. When their looks, dress sense etc. etc. are criticised. Not fair, we say, not fucking relevant. Because it’s not.
In Of Mice and Men, the book Gove tried to have removed from the GCSE English syllabus during his time as education secretary, Steinbeck paints his characters in a way that allows you to make judgements about them as people based on their physical characteristics. But it’s a story. In real life, not everyone good is gorgeous, and not everyone bad is physically unattractive with odd mannerisms.
Most of us are appalled at the surge in attacks on vulnerable people following last Thursday’s vote, a surge which seems at least partly the fault of narcissistic idiots like Mr Gove himself. But as a disabled person, the mockery around the video above made me supremely uncomfortable.
Tear into his policies, his beliefs all you like. It’s fair game. But let the weird physical stuff go. Because believe me, it’s probably the least of your worries.
‘I have shorts you can borrow’ my mum says.
Ugh. I hate shorts. Why can’t I wear capris, like I do for exercise, or these super cute flamingo pyjama shorts that I’ve wanted for ages (ok, the physio might have laughed at those).
The truth is, it’s probably not the shorts that are bothering me.
I get accused a lot, by some of my real life friends, of being super vain, by which they mean, ‘I saw you just walk past that shop window and check yourself out.’
Except, I’m not checking myself out. Or at least, not in the way they think I am. It’s true, that when passing a mirror, or a window, or any reflective surface, my reflex is to examine myself in it. But I’m not checking to see if I look good. What I’m looking for is threefold:
a) Do I feel passably attractive today?
b) Do I look fat?
c) Am I walking in a way that people will perceive as ‘normal’?
If you’ve been reading the blog for a while, you’ll know I’m not good at looking away, literally or metaphorically, from the things that upset me and/or make me anxious. You’ll know too, that I don’t like my body and that I believe my disability and my submissiveness are intrinsically linked. But what I don’t think I’ve touched on is that one of the things that fascinates me about submission is how often it’s associated with stillness.
And I’m both drawn in by that, and increasingly interested in inverting it.
I was thinking about it today, at the first serious hospital appointment I’ve attended to assess my hemiplegia in twenty years. As the physio explained how the two hour appointment would work – measuring my legs, testing my strength and dexterity, fitting sensors all over my lower half to track my movements – the same old issue was bothering me.
‘Do I have to see the stuff you’re capturing? I really don’t like video cameras.’
‘Not if you don’t want to. Most people find it interesting, though. Gait is very distinctive and lots of people recognise theirs on screen as soon as they see it.’
Yeah, I thought, that’s exactly what I’m worried about.
As it happened, it wasn’t that bad. It turns out you can walk up and down a room endless times and avoid eye contact with everyone present. It turns out that when you see footage that’s essentially just a series of computer-generated lines and dots for your legs, with a triangle for your pelvis and nothing above it at all, it’s not too hard to disassociate that with the body you’re uneasy living in. It turns out that you can live with the limp the way it looks on screen, even if your left leg does swing through without bending, not unlike the foot in Mousetrap.
It turns out you can leave with a different perception of your disability than the one you went in with- limp not as bad as you thought, but left ankle strength only a 1 out of 5 – and also wondering why you’re not getting to the heart of the way that makes you feel in your fiction.
I wrote a story last year where the FMC shares my condition. In that story, she and her partner invite another man into their bedroom in order that she’ll understand that she’s desirable to men other than the one she’s with in spite of her disability. I’m thrilled it was published, and I’m proud of it, but it fails to engage with the reality of disability and kink as fully as I’d have liked.
Back to the question of being still. When I’m submitting, the act of submission has never been characterised by stillness. I’d freak out if a man wanted to find me waiting for him on my knees. I don’t really see the appeal of rope bondage. I like to be held down, but only if I can struggle against the restraint: I like sex to be rough, out of control, blurry: sufficiently chaotic that neither he nor I can focus on the way my body looks or moves, essentially. Because even kneeling, although it ostensibly means staying still, requires that you can move in a certain way, and I’d want to do it gracefully and independently, not have to lower myself down and haul myself back up by the nearest surface or available hand.
So yeah, I want to write about that, because although it makes me uneasy, anything which makes me uneasy also has the potential for power-dynamic and humiliation play, things which I’m always keen to explore further – and fiction, after all, is a safe space in which to do so. And I want to push it even more – because if I’d be risking humiliation if a guy asked me to drop to my knees, I’d be risking it even more if he asked me to pace the room back and forth while he watched.
I want to play with those ideas of movement and motionlessness in my stories. I want to confront the things that scare me about my disability and that I’d love to overcome through kink, and work them right in there. Keep reminding me. Ask if I’ve written about it yet. Suggest new ways I can approach it. And, if stillness is central to your kink, please consider leaving a comment explaining why it appeals to you. Because, like I said, it fascinates me.
For more Wicked Wednesday, click on the circle…
I’m not blogging much at the moment, because I’m mainly focused on a novel. And, for the last few weeks, I’ve been working on pulling together a synopsis for that novel, not because it’s finished, but because an external deadline requires one. So, in short, I started thinking about how I’d market it, and was quickly reminded that, in the real world sex might sell stuff, but in fiction, stuff sells sex.
I could write yet again about FSoG here: about helicopters, fast cars and penthouse apartments. But I don’t want to. Instead, I want to talk about Maestra, which, truth be told, is not really that different.
Rags to riches is, if you believe in that kind of thing, one of only seven possible basic plots, so it makes sense that people are still writing about it. Things haven’t changed that much since Dickens was writing about it – being white, male and ablebodied, or, if you can’t be those things, marrying them – is still the smoothest route to an easy life, and therefore the key component of any HEA.
I don’t know if Maestra ends with an HEA. I hated it so much I didn’t get past the sample chapters. But what I can tell you, just from those sample chapters, and from the reviews I’ve read, is that the sex and stuff link is alive and well. There’s a lot of champagne, many yachts and women who are desperate to lose their regional accents in favour of something posher. There’s some graphically-written sex. There are not, thankfully, any ‘inner goddesses’ and there is liberal usage of the word ‘cunt.’
Nobody has any feelings.
In a Guardian piece, called, promisingly, Time to be grown up about female desire, Maestra’s author, LS Hilton, makes some valid points, like this one:
‘From Colette to Pauline Réage to Catherine Millet, the French appear to have no difficulty accepting that a woman can write about sex without being reduced to it.’
The problem is, in the book itself, while she may not reduce women to just sex, she does, according to the Guardian’s review of the book, reduce them nonetheless:
It’s shocking because the world it portrays feels so depressingly regressive. Men have money, power, yachts and hedge funds. Women are disposable accessories, frantic for material gain; they might use their wiles to outwit the men, or manipulate them to their own advantage, but the essential balance of power remains unchanged.
Being grown up about desire – male or female, to me, means divorcing it entirely from status and material goods. It means separating it from body type – because not only beautiful people have sex – from race, and from ability level. In the real world, while relationships and sex might sometimes be driven by the quest for material gain, I really believe that desire is the one thing that isn’t. I don’t believe, or at least I hope – that nobody gets wet or hard over the thought of a hedge fund.
And erotica, by which I mean the type that people reading this are likely to be writing, rather than the mainstream titles mentioned above, has the opportunity to change this. Already many of us are writing characters who aren’t model-like in their looks, physique and/or age range. Not many of us feel the need to make our characters outrageously wealthy. And I think we can take it further.
As you may know, I’m doing a workshop on writing disability in erotica at Eroticon this Saturday, and this question of aspiration is really the one I want to tackle. We spend a lot of time in the erotica/sex-blogging community reminding people that sex is a valid and worthwhile thing to write about – that sex and body positivity stand to benefit everyone. We’re doing as much, if not more, than most other genres to challenge gender and other societal norms, which makes me very proud and kind of emotional. And I want disability to benefit from that willingness to go against the status quo, too.
LS Hilton says her book isn’t ‘precisely a feminist polemic’ and that’s fine, but if she thinks she’s being grown up about desire, I’d disagree. She says:
I merely attempted to write about a modern female character who is unapologetic about desire and who feels no shame or conflict about its fulfilment.
I’m sorry, but don’t we all feel shame and conflict sometimes? Isn’t that what gives desire the complexity that makes it such a joy to write about? Especially since she goes on to play down desire/sex as the book’s main theme: ‘Besides, it’s not a “sex book”, it’s a thriller.’
I want to write “sex books”. I want to write about the way sex makes people feel – both the good and the bad. And more than anything, I want to write fiction that represents the way we actually live, rather than the way the rags to riches plot tells us we should want to. If you feel the same, please come along on Saturday.
I am a bit of a sucker for documentaries about growing up or growing older. When I left my last job, my colleagues bought me the box set of the Up series, and it remains one of my favourite things I’ve ever seen. I love Child of Our Time. But I’m particularly drawn to Born to be Different because this is growing up/growing older + disability.
I’ve taken Channel 4 to task before for what I consider to be ableist, unfair disability programming in the form of The Undateables. I stand by what I said in that post. But equally, Born to be Different is proof that when they get it right, they really, really get it right.
Disability is a strange thing. In some ways, with many disabilities, it seems the biggest physical challenges come early on. Will a child walk? How bad is the brain damage? What’s the diagnosis? Once those things are established, it can only get easier, right?
I’m increasingly not sure that’s true.
The Born to be Different kids are turning 16, and I’ve realised, for the first time, that disability splits in two. For some people, it’s a battle to live with a condition – to maintain self esteem, independence, faith – in the face of a world that increasingly judges them. For others, with life-shortening conditions, it’s a battle just to survive.
The life-shortening conditions are heartbreaking, obviously, but they’re harder to relate to. The kids with these conditions are still just that – kids, and it’s their parents and siblings you really feel for, because they can express just how hard life is in the face of such epic disability.
And then it gets complicated. Because although Zoe, who has arthrogryposis, is much more disabled than I am, I relate to the challenges of her condition, which affects the mobility of her arms and legs. I’m in tears as she talks about giving up netball, and then PE more generally, because ‘people can be nasty.’ Now, she says, ‘she wants to be a barrister,’ and I recognise too that turn to academia as an area in which is is possible to succeed. And god, I want Zoe to succeed.
In the episode I watched tonight, she was encouraged to apply for head girl, and I was immediately transported back to my last year of middle school, when I won the prize for overall contribution to the school. I was twelve, and it felt like the last time I was in any way at ease with myself (in many ways, I already wasn’t). Zoe panicked about making a speech, and as she struggled up to the podium, I completely got why – it’s not easy being the centre of attention when your body won’t cooperate. I cried, a lot, both for her, and for me, because I feel a million miles away from a happy-go-lucky childhood, and I’m not sure I could readopt that approach to the world even if I wanted to – snark and sarcasm are an easier and more robust defence. But Zoe is lovely, and I hope that, against the odds, she finds a way to maintain that as she grows older.
The boys in the programme so far have all been much sicker, so it’s hard to say whether there’s a gender split in how hard disability hits as you reach adulthood, but the Radio Times’ summary of next week’s episode, and its focus on dating, depressed me:
‘At 15 years old, Emily is interested in boys, although she’ll need one who won’t balk at her manually sluicing out her bowel several times a day. Similarly, Zoe worries that boys who claim to see past her arthrogryposis don’t mean it.’
There is something about the way that’s written that pisses me off. Will both Emily and Zoe find dating harder because of disability? Almost certainly. But ‘manually sluicing out her bowel several times a day’ is oddly graphic and unnecessarily explicit. Presumably Emily can do this independently, and any potential boyfriend would have no need to witness it in quite the icky terms its described in here? We need to understand disability better, undoubtedly, but it shouldn’t give us free rein to pore over the details which, it strikes me, are only there to make an able-bodied audience recoil in horror at the realities of life with a disability. It’s a precursor, I reckon, to questions like this.
Channel 4, to their credit, have avoided that this time. It would be nice if the Radio Times could do the same.
‘I push open the door and stumble through, tripping over my own feet and falling head first into the office.
Double crap – me and my two left feet! I am on my hands and knees in the doorway to Mr Grey’s office, and gentle hands are around me helping me stand. I am so embarrassed, damn my clumsiness. I have to steel myself to glance up. Holy cow – he’s so young.’
– E L James, Fifty Shades of Grey
I didn’t get that worked up when Ana fell at the start of FSoG. According to a friend, that was as it should be.
‘Bella is clumsy in Twilight. That’s the whole point.’
Maybe it is the whole point of Twilight. I don’t know. I haven’t read/seen it. What I do know, though, is that Ana’s clumsiness is completely fucking irrelevant to Fifty Shades.
I’m not sure that E L James thinks it is, however. I think E L James thinks it might be how Christian spots that Ana would make a good sub. After all, there’s lots about BDSM that confuses E L James – the fact that it’s not born out of a disturbed childhood, the fact that the love of a good woman can’t ‘cure’ somebody of it, and the way no fucking helicopter can make up for the fact that nowhere in the book does Ana suggest she might have submissive leanings.
Anyway. I wasn’t that bothered at the time because it was just a book. Not a book that had sold millions of copies. Not a book that had changed the landscape of erotica. Just a book. And then this happened:
He sank into an elegant crouch in front of me. Hit with all that exquisite masculinity at eye level, I could only stare. Stunned.
Then something shifted in the air between us.
As he stared back, he altered … as if a shield slid away from his eye, revealing a scorching force of will that sucked the air from my lungs. The intense magnetism he exuded grew in strength, becoming a near-tangible impression of vibrant and unrelenting power.
Reacting purely on instinct, I shifted backward. And sprawled flat on my ass.
– Sylvia Day, Bared to You
I’m a big believer in the power of chemistry. But I can honestly say I’ve never sprawled on my ass due to a guy’s ‘elegant crouch.’
I did a bit of Google research earlier this year, when I first started thinking about this. Surely, I reasoned, women falling must be an established trope in romantic literature. I couldn’t find anything. And then it occurred to me that maybe falling/injury is a modern update of this:
“MY DEAREST LIZZY,—
“I find myself very unwell this morning, which, I suppose, is to be imputed to my getting wet through yesterday. My kind friends will not hear of my returning till I am better. They insist also on my seeing Mr. Jones—therefore do not be alarmed if you should hear of his having been to me—and, excepting a sore throat and headache, there is not much the matter with me.—Yours, etc.”
“Well, my dear,” said Mr. Bennet, when Elizabeth had read the note aloud, “if your daughter should have a dangerous fit of illness—if she should die, it would be a comfort to know that it was all in pursuit of Mr. Bingley, and under your orders.”
– Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Romance relies on a weak heroine almost as much as it does an alpha hero. In the past, illness was enough to create a situation in which the hero and heroine are thrown together. These days, it’s harder to convince the average reader that a woman ‘needs’ a man, and so romance does everything in its power to recreate that situation of old. There are various approaches – the heroine can be pregnant, sick, young, poor or just plain clumsy. Because if she doesn’t need rescuing, the author is (ostensibly) breaking the pact they have with the reader.
I’m a cynic, but I was a sucker for Mills & Boon in the past. I loved these women who needed saving so much, I didn’t just read them; I made some shoddy attempts at writing them, too:
He knelt beside her and kissed her gently. She opened her eyes and gave him a sleepy smile. “Bedtime?” he asked.
She nodded, but made no attempt to move. He stood up and gathered her into his arms. She kicked off her stilettos and snuggled up against his chest. He handed her the warm mug, and headed for the stairs.
In their bedroom, he sat down on the edge of the bed and set about undressing her. He slid the straps of her satin dress down and placed her briefly on her feet so that she could step out of it. He unsnapped her suspender belt, removed her stockings and unclipped her bra. As he pulled her white cotton nightdress over her head, she gave a contented sigh, still half asleep. He pulled back the duvet and laid her down.
I think I excelled myself with that particular piece (in my defence, I was eighteen when I wrote it). The FMC has a minor case of being a bit tired, but it affects her so badly that she gets carried upstairs by the hero, undressed by him, and even ‘laid down.’ She couldn’t be more passive if she tried.
Looking back, it wasn’t the passivity that attracted me to writing these kind of women. It was the bodies that they’d need for these kind of scenes even to work. Women who get carried up to bed must naturally be willowy and feather-like. Not only that, I think I thought they were also easy women – if you could simply scoop a woman up and literally put her exactly where you wanted her to be, she wasn’t exactly going to cause you many other problems. And god, I wanted to be that kind of girl.
Luckily, I’ve grown out of that. A bit, anyway. But I’m still writing women who fall.
Falling is seriously grim. I know that not only from my own extensive experience, but also because I’m hyper-alert to other people falling. When I did the Moonwalk back in May, I witnessed a horrific one – an elderly lady tripped over a tree root and gained momentum as she attempted to right herself. Just as I thought she’d regained her balance, she went absolutely flying. And the smack of body hitting concrete, of other people’s gasps, they bring back every fall I’ve ever suffered. I hate seeing it almost as much as I hate doing it.
So we have to stop writing falls as though they’re romantic. They’re not. They’re painful, humiliating, scary. But those things can all be sexy. There’s one particular scene that’s stuck with me from Unfaithful with Richard Gere and Diane Lane, where she falls and we see the aftermath as a series of vignettes designed to foreshadow the risks and pain inherent in the affair she’s embarking on. She eases her tights away from an oozing graze. There’s a flashback to a boiling kettle hissing as she does. It’s all a bit predictable, perhaps, but it turned me on.
I’m fascinated by cuts, grazes, bruises. And not just the ones caused by kink, either. Watching skin knit back together, or blood bead, waiting to spill. The stickiness of it as it clots. The metallic, iron-rich taste of it. I completely accept that these things won’t work for everyone, though. They’re fairly dark, I guess.
Essentially I feel much the same about falling as I do about disability. We need to write it, to see it in the media, to acknowledge that it’s part of many people’s reality. It’s not kooky, or adorable, or cute. What it could be though, if we wrote it well, is really, really fucking hot.
She’s lying in the surf, unexpectedly. Or perhaps not so unexpectedly.
This has happened many times before. One minute, she’s negotiating her way across steeply banked rocks into the shallows, the next she’s an untidy heap in the water. Usually, it’s a particularly vicious wave that takes her down; today a small child on an inflatable has crashed into her legs and toppled her.
And the whole time, he’s standing there, watching.
It’s moved fast. They’ve only been together three months, and the holiday’s been planned for two. Summer was a bad time for it to start – she’s more vulnerable from June to September.
It sounds ridiculous when she thinks of it that way, but it’s true. On their first date, he suggested a walk. She was glad he saw that as an option, but fuck, she agonised over shoes for hours. Flat sandals make her tired, and wedges are too much of a risk. Trainers would make the most sense, but she knows they do her no favours. She’s seen people who’ve never batted an eyelid when she’s wearing sturdy boots look down curiously when she’s wearing trainers. They make her ankle lazy. She wears the wedges. She’s nothing if not stubborn.
On the beach, he helps her up; holds her hand as they move into deeper water. She wishes she could tell him some of this stuff.
Every time she falls, she tries to think of crumpled things that she loves. There are lots. Slept-in beds, still warm. The Sunday papers, read from cover to cover over a lazy breakfast, or a few days later, screwed up tighter and nestled into a pile of kindling, waiting for someone to strike a match. Sweet wrappers. A surprise £20 note in the pocket of her jeans. Crunchy, orange leaves in autumn.
The holiday ends, as does the summer. Shortly after, he moves in, and adds new crumpledness to her life. His shirts on the ironing pile. Condoms wrapped in screwed up tissue in the bathroom bin. And a receipt that she finds in the hallway one morning when she’s tidying. There’s something written on the back, and she flattens it carefully so she can make out the words. In his sloping, squished up handwriting, he has written
Will you marry me?
I love you.
Any of those would do.