A Fantasy of Empowerment by Sandra Schwab

[WARNING: This is going to get long, and I’m going to take the scenic route to arrive at the point I want to make, so please bear with me.  But there are plenty of pretty vistas, flowers, and goats to admire along the way, I promise!] [Okay, maybe not goats…]

When I discovered popular romance in late 1999, I was elated about the genre’s portrayal of women and female sexuality — the genre was the perfect antidote to years of studying classic literature, where female characters typically swoon, die prettily from consumption, are murdered by their jealous lovers (strangled by the English lover, poisoned by the German one), or commit suicide (mainly as a means to remain “pure” maidens or as a form of punishment for sexual “impurity”). Add to that several unpleasant experiences with historical fiction (heroine is burnt at the stake; heroine dies on top of a tower, pierced by numerous arrows; exploding wax babies; goat sex) (yes, you’ve read that right) (there was more than one such scene and more than one goat), and romance seemed like heaven by comparison (no goats!!!).

However, I quickly became dismayed over the portrayal of queer characters, especially in category romance. If the male is the Other in romance, then queer characters are often portrayed as the other Other: not just other because of their sex and gender, but also because of their sexual orientation, which — at least in some books — is code for their being really horrible human beings: in several Harlequin Presents from the early 2000s, the closeted gay (other) man (shortish and slender) nearly lures the poor, hapless heroine into a marriage of convenience for the sake of appearances, makes her feel really bad about herself and her sexuality, and sleeps around behind her back. It falls to the tall, muscular (straight) hero to rescue the heroine, dispel her doubts about her own sexual desirability, and make the other guy look like a horrible little shit. (Very rarely it is the hero who “falls victim” to a lesbian other woman.)

To say that I was utterly disgusted by this portrayal of gay and lesbian characters would be an understatement. Add to that the backlash against LGBT rights in the early 2000s and the greater media coverage of hate crimes, which, I have to admit, made me aware for the first time of the existence of such hate crimes against LGBT people.

I was appalled, and I wanted to make a stand — be it ever so small and insignificant — against the stereotyping and othering of queer characters in popular culture.

And so, when I drafted what would eventually become my first published novel, The Lily Brand, I decided to write against all the hate and all the horrible stereotypes by including a gay secondary couple in my mainstream historical romance — and making them sweet and as happily in love as I possibly could.

“But wait a moment,” you might say. “How is that historically accurate?”

Well, you know what’s not historically accurate? All those rake heroes who hop through all the beds in Europe and still don’t catch any interesting STDs. All those heroines who end up empowered and in a marriage to a guy who respects them and loves them to pieces. Do you honestly think all those Regency girls, even the upper-class ones, got a Mr. Darcy? No, if they were lucky they got a Mr. Collins — the guy might be rather silly and not particularly attractive, but at least he seems to treat his wife decently. And, you know, not beat her or rape her.

Throughout most of history women did not have a lot of power. And I don’t need to tell you that even today women’s rights are under attack, that many of us face  discrimination and harassment on a daily basis, while we simultaneously struggle with the all the latest ideals of femininity, motherhood, beauty and what not society thrusts on us. We know all that. If we want to get a good dose of reality, all we need to do is to look at our own lives. Switch on the TV and watch the news. Turn to social media and see a woman receive death threats because she has dared to speak out against the representation of women in video and computer games.

That is the reality.

[“Can we now get back to the queer part, please?” — “Shh. In a moment. Told you: I’m taking the scenic route.”]

Romance offers us something slightly different. When you look at the most popular, best beloved m/f romances, you’ll soon find that most of them feature that stable of romance fiction, the tall (!), dark (!!), and dangerous (!!!!) hero, who is frequently arrogant and domineering and whom nobody would want to know in real life. (Seriously: Who would want to be friends with somebody like Heyer’s Damerel? The guy sneers at everybody!) The heroine typically starts out in a much weaker position than him, but by the end of the novel the balance of power has shifted in her favor. She has “tamed” the hero, and the male Other has become the familiar.

So at the end of a m/f romance novel the hero and heroine have created something new between them, a new order, a new form of relationship that is based on mutual respect and trust. Traditionally, the wedding of the protagonists and/or the birth of a baby have often served as narrative markers of that new order, as a narrative code for the love between the protagonists and for their commitment towards each other. (Though by now those older markers have been replaced by others in many romances, readers still expect a sign that the main characters are committed to each other as an integral part of the happy ending.)

Moreover, whatever horrid things the author has thrown at the characters in the course of the story (and you can throw an awful lot of horrid things at your characters!) have been overcome, too. At the end of the story, the heroine has thus gained control over her life and over her relationship with the hero, who has acknowledged her as his equal. In other words, m/f romance offers readers what Susan Elizabeth Phillips back in 1992 called “a fantasy of female empowerment.”

I believe that the romance genre offers readers a similar fantasy of empowerment when it comes to queer characters and queer romance.

[See? I told you I would arrive here at some point!]

If you place a queer love story within the parameters of genre romance (aka a love story with an emotionally satisfying and uplifting happy ending), the happy ending can pack quite a powerful punch, for it goes against what most of history tells you to be true. Romance as a genre allows you to create a narrative where against all odds, your queer characters find each other, overcome all obstacles both history and you (the author) throw into their way, and where at the end they figure out how they can stay together and be happy together.

Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, queer romance puts the queer gaze and the queer experience front and center — and thus normalizes them. This, I think, is vitally important if we want to eventually overcome the othering of queer characters that still happens so very often in mainstream popular culture — though things are slowly, slowly, very slooooowly getting better: just think of Spartacus, where the cute gay couple Agron and Nasir didn’t just get many tender moments and some beautifully shot love scenes, but were also among the very few survivors at the end of the TV series.

As to my own gay couple in The Lily Brand — amidst the darkness of the novel, the abuse the hero and heroine experience, and the web of hate and mistrust they find themselves caught in, Justin and Drake’s relationship forms a beacon of light and hope. I not only made their love as affectionate and life-affirming as I possibly could, but I also made it the positive foil for all the ugliness that happens in the novel. The example of their love, affection, and friendship ultimately facilitates the growing of love and understanding between the hero and heroine.

Surely, for that alone they deserve all the happiness and laughter (and big, slobbering dogs) I could bestow upon them.

If it is historically inaccurate to depict a gay relationship this way, I frankly don’t care.

In my fictional world, I can make their happiness possible — and surely that shouldn’t be a hardship in a genre that celebrates love.


 Win Things!

Leave to a comment to win a signed paperback of The Lily Brand (out of print at the moment, but I still have copies – ha!) (and I also hope to have it back in print this month) (or maybe the next). Or a bundle of signed copies of the first three Allan’s Miscellany novellas (The Bride Prize, A Tangled Web, Devil’s Return).


 Sandra’s Queer Romance Recommendations

KJ Charles, Think of England: One of the best historical romances I’ve read in a long time. There have already been so many great and intelligent things said about this novel, so I’m going to limit myself to: OMG, SO GOOD!!!!!!

Mercedes Lackey, The Last Herald Mage trilogy: Not a romance, but fantasy fiction. However, it contains strong romantic elements — and my favorite fantasy hero, who just happens to be gay. And a badass mage (well, he grows into one). And there’s a cute bard in Book 3. And you’ll need tissues…


 About Sandra Schwab

Award-winning author Sandra Schwab started writing her first novel when she was seven years old. Thirty-odd years later, telling stories is still her greatest passion, even though by now she has exchanged her pink fountain pen of old for a black computer keyboard. Since the release of her debut novel in 2005, she has enchanted readers worldwide with her unusual historical romances (well… and made them cry, too).

She holds a PhD in English literature and lives in Frankfurt am Main / Germany with a sketchbook, a sewing machine, and an ever-expanding library (which includes 150 pounds of Punch). Her new series about the fictional magazine Allan’s Miscellany combines her academic research on Victorian periodicals with her love for storytelling (and her love for Mr. Punch!!!).

  • http://www.sandraschwab.com
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About The Lily Brand

Schwab-LilyBrandForever marked

Captured during the fight against Napoleon, Troy Sacheverell, fifth Earl of Ravenhurst, remains imprisoned in a dark French gaol until he is purchased by the rich, twisted woman known as the Black Widow. Dragged to an old manor on the outskirts of civilization, he becomes a plaything for her stepdaughter, who marks his flesh and brands him with the flower of her name.

Lillian does not live with Camillie, her stepmother, by choice, but no one espaces the Black Widow’s web. And so, on her nineteenth birthday Lillian becomes Camille’s heir and is given a man to end her naiveté; a man, handsome of face and body. Yet even as Lillian does as she is told, claims him for her own and places her brand on his body, all she desires is escape. But now, looking into burning blue eyes, she knows there is no place to run. No matter should she flee, no matter where she might go, she and this man are inextricably linked by hate and passion, forever bound together by the Lily Brand… 

And so, while her heart remains locked in ice, his burns with hate. Will they ever find true happiness?

Find out more about The Lily Brand, re-releasing soon in digital format, on Sandra’s website.

5 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Really great post, even without goats, Sandy. I like this:
    “Romance as a genre allows you to create a narrative where against all odds, your queer characters find each other, overcome all obstacles both history and you (the author) throw into their way, and where at the end they figure out how they can stay together and be happy together.”
    THAT. That is romance.

  • What a fantastic post. I really love your “fantasy of empowerment” theme & how it’s reflected in both het romance & queer romance in different ways. It’s so true, yet not something I’ve previously thought about in those terms.

    This I just find particularly wonderful: “Justin and Drake’s relationship forms a beacon of light and hope. I not only made their love as affectionate and life-affirming as I possibly could, but I also made it the positive foil for all the ugliness that happens in the novel.”
    What an absolutely perfect turning-on-it’s-head of the once quite common convention of portraying of queer characters as inherently tragic or morally flawed. I’m so glad that’s something queer romance has changed, at least within the genre :-)

    I saw your book The Lily Brand referenced in a Twitter conversation you had with Alexis Hall just the other day & being the curious type I, of course, instantly googled it. It really sounded like something up my alley. Though it is sadly out of print, as you say, I was able to find a new paperback copy from a re-seller, so I’m looking forward to reading it sometime soon 😉

    • Thanks so much, Pam! I had planned to re-release a digital edition of TLB on Sunday, but alas, it turned out that the final proofread would take me a bit longer than I had anticipated. (Gah! This *always* happens to me!) (But you did read that bit under “Win Things!”, didn’t you? 😉 )

      As to the “fantasy of empowerment” theme – I got the anthology from which the Phillips quote is taken (Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance, ed. by Jayne Ann Krentz) back in 2001, just two years after I had started to read and write romance. The anthology in combination with the interviews I did with Teresa Medeiros and Gaelen Foley for my MA thesis around the same time have to a great extent shaped the way I think about romance. This idea of empowerment and healing and the start of a new “world” is something that came up time and time again, not just in the essays from the anthology, but also in the e-mails I exchanged with Gaelen and Teresa, so it is something that is very deeply ingrained in my understanding of romance as a genre (and something that I cannot really take credit for :-) ).

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