Ripping on Bodice Rippers

By Poison Ivy,

The other evening I was dining with a batch of old friends from the comic book business. As conversations do, the talk turned to what each of us was working on, and thus to my long stint in romances. An otherwise nice fellow made the mistake of asking me about “bodice rippers.” I almost leapt across the table to throttle him. He was taken aback by my impassioned annoyance.

It’s a sore spot with most romance readers (and writers and editors) that most non-romance readers pick up an ignorant, pejorative term for our genre—a pejorative term foisted on us by the hostile and patronizing mass media—and continue to use it decades after that particular appellation could possibly apply. “Gothics” in fact kept being used until “bodice rippers” came into fashion even though the gothic trend was long over by then and it had been years since the last nightgown-clad governess ran away from a dark castle on the cover of a book. And anyway, not every romance was a gothic even when gothics were big.

“Bodice rippers” was actually a correct description of a vogue in historical romances published in the 1970s. (My male friend obviously hasn’t noticed anything about romances since then.) The media made up that term for a specific trend in romances that was launched by Kathleen Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower, along with Sweet Savage Love by Rosemary Rogers. Another term for it was the “rape saga, ” but that was not an accurate description of all these books. Woodiwiss’s acclaim probably reached its height with Shanna, the first original trade paperback historical romance, which received a major marketing push and became a big bestseller. These books were very popular because they had sex in them. Nothing like what readers are used to now, though. And these books had what we would now view as an antique attitude towards sex, because the sex was pretty much forced on the heroines. At first, anyway.

Bodice rippers were historical novels in which the hero got the heroine in bed against her will initially, but things worked out well for them by the story’s end. At the same time as these stories of reluctant romance were being published, an ugly, double-pronged sub-genre of bodice rippers sprang up. In one version, the heroine was hot to trot; she had the morals and heart of a courtesan, and the story was just a series of cheap, crudely described erotic encounters as she lived the life of an adventuress. Presumably it was a way of dealing with the change in our society that said it was okay for women to have sex with men and like it. Few of these books are in print now and justifiably so. Not many people really want to read about a slut as a heroine.

In the other version, the true “rape saga,” a complete stranger raped the previously innocent heroine. These stories clearly had an ogre figure representing ugly lust. At one time I remember joking to a friend of mine that the same fat, middle-aged merchant raped every heroine in every book. But it wasn’t funny. These heroines were living difficult lives and suffering realistically harrowing events. The heroines were thrown into a very unsafe, picaresque world of gypsies, whores, rogues, thieves, courtesans, and brigands of all descriptions. Often the heroine spent time as the kept woman of one nasty man, then more time as a kept woman of a different nasty man, plus chapters in bordellos as the helpless toy of an out-and-out villain. During all this, the heroine found her true love and lost him over and over. She usually bore a child or two, since the stories took place in historical times when birth control was not readily available. And she married once or twice, sometimes marrying while despairing that the first husband was dead but later discovering he was alive. This was a survivor story that no one today would consider a romance. A very negative world view dominated, but the heroine was still a good person throughout. Still, the events were naturalistic, not idealistic. People behaved badly. This kind of story found its core popularity with the audience for mainstream fiction, not for romances. The heroines of these novels were stubborn survivors, women who were used and abused by men, raised high by them and cast low, but who always held their heads high and fought for whatever a woman could realistically achieve in a society in which men could own women and degrade them for fun and profit, and think nothing less of themselves for so doing. Despite all the vicissitudes these heroines suffered, eventually they found or were reunited with their true loves. These women created strong social support systems of devoted servants or relatives. They had children. And they ended up with land and money. So these women became survivors.

These survivor books had nothing romantic to the rapes. Nothing. But others in the bodice ripper genre conflated forced sex with love. It was a very curious mixture and reflected the confusion of the social times and the isolation both of romance readers and of romance writers. At the time, romance writers were writing in a lonely vacuum, not knowing or talking to each other and having no national or local organizations. And many men were writing these stories under female pseudonyms, so the honesty of the female point of view expressed within is in some doubt. But soon romance readers and romance writers started talking to each other through various forums, including fan magazines, writers’ organizations, and conferences. And when they did, a fierce debate over rape in romances began.

Because, you see, during the bodice ripper vogue, nobody was asking readers if they were reading these books because of the rapes or in spite of them. The hot news was that there was sex in the books. The sexual truths certainly appealed to readers. Even the social truths. But most romance writers themselves expressed repugnance for stories in which rape is described as something acceptable. And most romance readers, when actually asked, said the same. On the other hand, all of them understood the appeal of an ardent, possibly dominating male who coaxes and convinces a heroine to give in to the desire she feels for him. Still, in the past 30 years, heroes have been more constrained not to use violence or the threat of violence against a heroine. And to honor her right to say no. Back then, not so.

The bodice ripper vogue eventually tanked, as all fads do. What remains is the modern historical romance as we know it. Historical romance heroines often have to fight with their heroes to get what they want or need, but the basic relationship is or becomes mutually respectful. There sure aren’t a lot of ripped bodices in the modern historical. But ignorant people (mostly men, but also some women who never read romance and who do not like idealistic stories) still call romances bodice rippers. Given that the hottest trend currently is paranormal romance, we can safely assume that these patronizing-yet-ignorant people will soon start calling all romances by some bastard name for paranormal. I will try not to leap across tables to throttle them.