Content Warning: Ableism
I remember the first words out of my mouth after watching the OP to The Duke of Death and His Maid: “Oh no, this is going to be one of those anime, isn’t it?” It’s easy to see at first glance that this contains fantasy fulfillment elements of having a “big titty goth girlfriend.” The titular maid, Alice, straight-up tries to fluster the protagonist with her breasts and even lifts up her dress to expose herself to him at one point. Heck, even the lyrics of “Don’t touch! Touch me!” in the opening theme imply that the show is going to be nothing more than a hot maid constantly making her charge blush, for the audience’s enjoyment.
However, as a disabled person, I am so grateful that I gave this show a full three-episode try instead of giving up there. The Duke of Death and His Maid takes what could be a cheap device for titillation and, intentionally or not, transforms it into something far more emotionally powerful. When looking at the show as a story with metaphors about disability and navigating disability in that space, it becomes difficult to remove the fanservice without making the story weaker.
The series follows the titular Duke, who’s referred to either by his title or as “your grace,” a young, wealthy gentleman who was cursed by a witch at a young age. The curse has made it so that anything he touches will instantly die. Due to this, he lives in a house sequestered away alongside his adoring maid Alice and his loyal butler Rob, trying to find joy in his strange life.
It was a painful cut to my soul to realize just how much the protagonist’s life reflected my own as a person who was disabled at a young age. “You will live a pathetic life. No one will ever love you. And you will never love anyone.” These are the last words the Duke remembers hearing before being cursed by the witch. Becoming disabled is something that could happen at any moment, and this curse is essentially that: unexpected and life-changing.
I am far from the only disabled person to discuss how they have been made to feel unlovable, a burden on others, and unattractive as a partner simply for having disabilities. Look at the show The Undateables, a documentary series spanning eleven seasons and fifty-three episodes based on the premise that people with long-term conditions are, as their title states, undateable. Put representation like that alongside a lack of marriage equality for disabled people in many countries, wherein many lose much-needed benefits upon entering committed relationships — including simply living with someone for too long — and it’s easy to see why disabled people would feel like there’s no hope of them finding lasting intimate relationships.
The Duke lives in almost total isolation, sent away from the place he has always known to a summer home with no one but his trusty butler, and eventually Alice, to help him. This reminded me so much of having to take special courses away from my other friends in school simply to catch up on what I’d missed, having to leave classes and socializing time early to do physical therapy, and even just having to ride a different bus than everyone else to accommodate my wheelchair.
I was separated from so many friends already that it hurt even more when I stopped being invited to hang out simply because I could not physically keep up. The show mirrors this in its very first episode, when it becomes obvious that a visiting friend named Phillip is extremely uncomfortable with the Duke and is only visiting him because he was forced to. That friend literally calls the Duke a monster and tries to convince the servants of the house to leave him. When there are countless questions on Reddit and Quora asking if people should leave their disabled partners, and they get answers like, “You are not chained to anybody. If this handicap is too much for you to deal with and you didn’t anticipate all you got yourself into why should you stay,” it’s clear that many people are of the same mind as Phillip.
The Duke also has to suffer through the possibility that because of his curse, this disability, his mother doesn’t want him to inherit the family title. The moment I went from a strapping young potential hockey star as a child to a severely weakened wheelchair user, my father basically abandoned all pretenses of caring about me as his child. All the focus went towards my older brother, as it does with the Duke’s younger brother and sister in the anime.
In so many ways, the Duke represents what living as a disabled person is like; Alice, as a counterpart, shows how people can truly love and care about someone and find ways to share intimacy with them regardless of disabilities. The Duke is painted as someone dangerous by the outside world, even though none of this was ever his fault. The show’s premise technically fits into the larger problem of using fictional characters who really are dangerous as metaphors for real-world groups that are frequently dehumanized. In the Duke’s case, however, the show remains squarely focused on how he has long since made accommodations that let him live his life, and that the reactions of the world at large are outsized and demonizing.
Alice attempts to provide sexual intimacy for her disabled partner through her flashing and other flirty tactics. While the intro might suggest that her flirting is unwanted, even using the phrase “harassment,” by the end of the first episode, it’s obvious that Alice and the Duke share a mutual attraction, and that he holds himself back because he fears hurting her. This is reminiscent of Gosnell Duncan, the inventor of the modern-day silicone dildo, and what he attempted back in 1965. While his wife married him after he was paralyzed from the waist down and didn’t care about having sex traditionally, he wanted to find adaptive ways for them to share intimacy that felt satisfying.
When Duncan attempted to bring these dildos into the hands of more people with the help of Dell Willams, the founder of the first feminist sex-toy store, these adaptive tools were extremely maligned by the feminist community of the time. As Karla Jay wrote in the October 1974 issue of Lesbian Tide: “Anyone admitting to using a dildo today would probably be verbally castigated for enjoying ‘phallic’ pleasure. Verbal criticism has FORCED some sisters into a second closet.”
In her 2005 memoir, Revolution in the Garden, Dell Williams wrote about imagining dildos beyond their initial lifelike design. “Why did a dildo have to look like a cock at all? Did it have to have a well-defined, blushed-pink head, and blue veins in bas-relief?” The Duke and Alice’s sex life, likewise, needn’t look stereotypical for it to truly be an important facet of their relationship, and its elements of fanservice don’t stop that intimacy from being crucial to the story. The Duke cannot touch Alice, so she has helped create a unique kink dynamic that allows her to flash and tease in a way they both enjoy as an adaptive form of sexual intimacy.
This goes beyond the confines of sex as well. The show has a beautiful scene where the two slow-dance, Alice holding onto the cuffs of the Duke’s coat so that they can move together without touching. Alice even goes out of her way to make a giant metal cage costume for the Duke so they can go out on a date during their world’s version of Halloween, giving him at least a glimpse at a “normal” life and what dating looks like.
Alice never tries to force the Duke to remove his curse either, only starting a quest to do so after it’s apparent that it’s what he wants out of his life. Too often, disabled people are forced into boxes of what their lives should look like in order to function in “normal” society. When I lost a foot back in early 2020, so many people pressured me into getting a prosthetic leg, and it now houses a basil plant because using a wheelchair makes me happier. “Won’t you miss walking? Doesn’t that make things so inconvenient? I’d kill myself if I had to use a chair like you do!” These are all real sentences that have been said to me out loud, so it’s so touching to see how Alice in no way wants to force the Duke to change himself to be “normal” and would continue loving him regardless.
The Duke of Death and His Maid is a show that proves fanservice can actually service the plot, and I find that absolutely remarkable as a viewer. For those who passed on giving this show a chance, I highly recommend giving it another shot with this context in mind. I’m certain this show will not only resonate powerfully with other disabled viewers but could help those who are abled to gain insights into what life is like for those of us who aren’t.