Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Bodice Ripper - why do we hate that term so much?

There is a fascinating discussion going on at Dear Author. Amongst other things written, a reporter who is an avid SF fan confessed to not reading very many romance books at all and at one point referred to them as “bodice rippers”. As expected, a few fans of the romance genre, including Nora Roberts, called her on the carpet for referring to romance in that term.
But why is it so offensive to romance readers, she and probably many other non-readers wonder? So this is my, probably poor, attempt to explain. Now since this will be a given to romance readers, this particular blog is for the non-romance reader. But since the non-romance readers probably won’t read this, it’s more of an opportunity for me to ramble about my thoughts. And I do so like doing that!
I’ve been reading romance all my life I think. Or at least looking for romance in everything I read. But my real entry into the genre started with the likes of Georgette Heyer, Daphne DuMaurier; was anything sadder than when the French pirate sailed off in Frenchman’s Creek or more romantic than when the hero/heroine rode off together in Jamaica Inn, Anna Seyton; oh how I loved Green Darkness and Katherine! Mary Stewart was another author who I couldn’t read enough of when I was young. Then later Colleen McCullough’s Thorn Birds kept me enthralled. Now by today’s standards these weren’t romance books, rather they were books with a love story as some didn’t have a HEA. In all of these books there was either nothing more than a kiss or the door pretty much closed on us when it got down to the nitty gritty.
But then the genre was turned on it’s ear in the late 70’s and early 80’s with authors such as Rosemary Rogers and Kathleen Woodiwiss. Now there was sex in romance. A lot of sex. But for the vast majority, it wasn’t that nicely described. The heroes, on looking back now, were jerks and the heroines almost non-participants as their sensibilities were trampled over recklessly by the jerk heroes. Rape and forced seduction were the norms of these books and the term Bodice Ripper came into being. And it was an apt description at the time.
But as women in real life slowly gained ground in the workforce and gained power and strength in their personal lives, so did the heroes evolve into more compassionate people who had feelings and while sometimes trampling over the heroines, feeling regret afterwards. One of the things many romance readers clamor for and love is the “grovel”. When the hero screws up and hurts the heroine, we now want to see him make amends and ‘pay’ for his mistake. We want him to suffer for the hurt he has done the heroine. This kind of thing rarely happened in the old bodice rippers. The hero wasn’t very often held accountable for his actions and then at the end, he got everything he wanted, just the way he wanted it.
But as much as the hero had evolved over the years, this is mild compared to the transformation of the heroine. No longer is she the beautiful young thing held at the mercy of a strong willed jerk. No, women in today’s romance stand up for themselves. They often rescue the hero and they are almost always equal partners in a relationship. They initiate sex instead of waiting helplessly for the macho pig hero to decide when it’s time, how it’s done and where it’s done. They enjoy sex, often with other men before meeting the hero. They are successful in what they do and often mirror the strides women in real life have made.
So in a sense, referring to romance of today as bodice rippers negates all that women have accomplished in the past 30 or 40 years.
Suppose you were a successful business woman who had worked hard to get where you were and some guy who had no idea of the struggles you went through to get where you are today were to come up and tell you that you belonged at home – that’s where a woman’s place really is, taking care of her husband. Wouldn’t you almost blow a gasket?
It’s the same kind of idea for those of us who read romance. Women have come a long way and romance has also come a long way. We want those outside the genre to at least be aware of this before they use the anachronistic terms that, while yes they once may have applied, no longer do to this wonderful genre of romance.

‘til later

17 comments:

Wendy said...

KristieJ:
I agree with you. For me, the term "bodice ripper" implies that the female character is "weak." And while there are certainly still TSTL heroines in romance, by and large today's heroines have very little in common with romance heroines from the 70s and 80s.

When a person uses this term they are showing their ignorance. It means they're either 1) judging the genre by the shitty covers or 2) haven't read a romance in 25 years. Certainly genres change with the times. Not every mystery novel published 25 years ago "holds up" either.

Tara Marie said...

You know it's funny. I'm not all that offended by the term bodice ripper, probably because I understand it's meaning within the context of romance. But I can also understand why some readers are offended by it.

I found the s/f reporters comment about not touching romance with a 10 foot pole and a HAZMAT suit much more offensive. It was incredibly narrowminded.

Bev (BB) said...

Particularly when she's going around calling books romances. ARGH!

Head to desk.

Mailyn said...

I'd like to agree with you but, and I am sure I am in the small minority here, romance has hardly evolved. Yes I remember the bodice rippers but we exchanged that for TSTL heroines. Most romance books I've read have a TSTL heroine. Yes, heroes may have gotten a bit better but not much. They are still cartoonishly alpha and, IMO, the thing that has changed is that they don't force the women anymore...sometimes. Nowadays heroes are still all over the virgin but she gives in rather than being forced.


This rant refers to the books most romance lovers adore. I get recs all the times from books people swear by and I find them to be cliche and cheesy but I know I'm weird like that. LOL.

I do know, however, that some people don't read romance for that same reason. They've been recommended a couple that were deemed by most to be great and they found them silly.

I think it just depends on the person and what they find romantic vs over-the-top.

Kristie (J) said...

Mailyn: I know what you mean. People still have this great love for Shana by Kathleen Woodiwiss. It was quite the book for it's time - and I read it when it first came out - the generation thing don't you know *g*. But I tried reading it a few years ago and it was laughable for me. So if non-romance readers were given this one for example, it probably could turn them off.
And there still are a lot of cliche ridden books that are being written today that IMO aren't worth the paper they are written on. But I still get annoyed when someone who has never read romance just dismisses them as 'bodice rippers' because they really aren't anymore.

Bev & Tara marie: I know - that was pretty insulting too, although if I remember right it wasn't so much the reporter who had that attitude as much as some of her other SF friends. And she may have been paraphrasing a bit. And yea - calling them romance is just so WRONG!! I remember Angie brought this up a number of months ago - just the idea of it. Looks like it's starting to trickle down. Hopefully the publishers will see the error of their ways!! And Tara, you're much more understanding than me *g* 'cause I see read when some uninformed writer uses that term to describe most romances of today.

Wendy: You're so right! And there are still lots of TSTL heroines of today - but they are TSTL by their own choices - not because some a$$hole forced it upon them. And by far the greatest change is in the heroine. I mean in real life you don't see the wife waiting for her dear husband at the end of the day with his meal on the table and her wearing a dress and pearls anymore. Same thing with romance heroines. They have changed dramatically with the times. In my case, I was the one who was last in the door and very often Ron had dinner waiting for me and had done a lot of housework - what I didn't get done in the morning after he left :)

Mailyn said...

I know what you mean and I agree, if the person hasn't read any romance they shouldn't be comenting on anything except the cover or the tile [cringe worthy as some of they are lol]

It's just like the people that slam Harry Potter without so much as reading a chapter. I get and understand that many people will hate HP but these people hate it because they've tried it and found it lacking or bad. To say they hate it "just because", like with romances, is just plain dumb.

CindyS said...

Hmmm, what's that saying people use now?

Wow! 1980 called and wants it's 'generalized term for romance books' back.

Too clunky?

CindyS

Jane said...

What a great, great article. You should reprint it for the Romancing the Blog crowd. You are completely right that the genre of romance has evolved but few in the media or outside the genre has recognized that.

ames said...

Great stuff Kristie!

Tara Marie said...

I've been thinking about this since I saw the post last night. And you're right, we should be offended by "Bodice Ripper" because it does have negative connotations. Romance has come a long way and should be treated with more respect from people inside and outside the genre.

Jenster said...

Yeah! That's it!! Great "ramblings", Kristie!

farmwifetwo said...

I honestly, am having trouble with a lot of romances b/c of the TSTL factor. Yes, they have come a long way. Jayne Ann Krentz is republishing those 80's books and even writes in the front that these aren't as "well rounded" as they are today. Need to find the book so I can quote it.

I get annoyed with h's running off and H's having to come and rescue them. Or "I cannot love you b/c I'm too screwed up"...

I use to think they were fun and sexy.

I've gone back to reading mysteries and other less mainstream romance books. I like romantic suspense. I LOVE JD Robb.

Hoping it's just a passing phase but I tried your Fever Dreams, skipped/skimmed the middle and read the last couple of chapters to finish it up.

I'm not over it yet :)

As for the "bodice ripper" comments. Those are only from people that can't be bothered to read the books. And with Troll's.. just ignore them.

Kristie (J) said...

Farmwifetwo: If it was just the occasional reference in passing to the 'bodice ripper' books that make up the romance genre, it might not be so bad, but 90% of articles written about the romance genre by non-fans of the genre feel they have to use that term - usually in a deragatory, sneering, kind of tone and I'm tired of it! There is a decided lack of respect in the tone of so many of these articles that are being read by hundreds/thousands/millions of people Romance is NOT the same today as is used to be. The other preconceived perception is that romance books are porn for women - a topic I'll tackle some other time. There is no thought given that many of the heroines in today's romance mirror real life women and the struggles we have gone through to get where we are. And as for TSTL heroines - well who among us can't give examples of real life women who make stupid decisions. I can think of a few right off the top of my head I want to yell "what the hell are you thinking???!!!!??" So for me just writing them off as trolls is an injustice to the authors who write such wonderful stories and the readers who love them!
See - I'm a bit passionate on this subject *g*. And :-( that Fever Dreams didn't work for you. But we are nothing if we aren't diverse aren't we. Except that we romance readers do demand that HEA in our ROMANCE books!

Jenster: I take a bow ;-)

Tara Marie: See - my impassioned ramblings have made you think *g*. The term bodice ripper implies that women are helpless against the stronger a$$hole hero who only wants to rip her clothes off and have his way with her. This IS insulting to the hero/heroines of today and the writers who write them.

Ames: As I said to FarmwifeTwo - if it happened once or twice it wouldn't be so frustrating, but I can be reading an article and go along thinking OK - this is pretty good - then the author has to throw in the term 'bodice ripper' and ruin whatever point he/she may be trying to make. And this happens time and time and time again. I'm glad you see it too *g*.

Jane: Thank you!! If they ever show an interest, I'd be glad to fine tune it 'cause I keep thinking of points I meant to make *g*. And it was your piece that got me thinking on this.

farmwifetwo said...

You need to do what I do.. take my Romance to the mall, hair salon, wherever.

I'm currently reading Donna Kauffman's Bad boys in Kilts. For some reason I still like her and Lori Foster... I've given up trying to understand why I prefer something over something else...

I have an ecletic assortment of books from sci/fi/fantasy to hqn Blaze's. No rhyme or reason why one author appeals over another.

They don't like it.. tough... If you read Laurie R. King's blog you'll find the one's that don't like her "lesbian" series. Or the fact that Holmes is 40's older than Mary Russell. I enjoy both series'.

But I have no qualms about reading anything in public. And if someone wishes to trash my reading preferences... I just stop reading their articles. It's one thing not to prefer the storyline. Or there's something that bothers you about the story-line at a personal level. But to read one book and think all authors write the same is wrong.

There's too much other stuff going on in my life to worry about someone else's close-mindedness (is that a word?? :) )

Jill Monroe said...

This is an excellent discussion, and it's great that you're spelling it out why this term is so annoying. Now I'll just point people right here.

CrankyOtter said...

I like your thoughts on this subject. It's like every time someone refers to a "bodice ripper", they're dissing 30 years of growth and progress not only for the genre, for fans of the genre, and women in general. Thanks for the post!

I wanted to add a comment that I think goes with the theme. It's not original to me, I read it somewhere (AAR? don't remember) but find it worth repeating. One other phrase commonly brought up in articles about romance is the "rape fantasy". This author posited that women don't have "rape" fantasies; women have fantasies about sex they can't be held accountable for. Because women are still not societally allowed great sex, just for the fun of it, to occur without consequences to the degree that men are.

Even now, with all the gains, there are a lot of heroines being written who are still apologizing for having sex and enjoying it. What's with that? Many authors have thankfully given this up, but it's sad to me how often I read about heroines who've slept with 1, maybe 2, men and they were pretty unsatisfactory. Like it's still only ok not to be a virgin if the sex is lousy. Since about 70% of the women I went to college with slept with at least 2 men by the end of sophomore year, very conservatively, I can't relate to this at all when the heroine is a still single woman in her late 20s or early 30s. Even 1 sexual relationship every two or three years from 18 to 28 puts one at 4 or 5, and discounts party mistakes. So this lack of a dating or sexual past can pull me, the reader, out of a story to wonder what kind of social misfit the heroine was to get no action. I think this is the exception that needs to be explained, rather than the rule to be taken as a given. But then, I went to a manly sort of college and there we women were in demand.

Why is this related to your blog, and not my own blog topic? Because I think "Bodice Rippers" came about because they allowed women to have wild, wonderful fantasy sex without being held accountable for it. They were one of the many stepping stones propelling the Romance genre forward. So maybe in addition to grimacing at the BR phrase, we can point out that they were necessary when women were still seen as unable to participate in their sexuality without widespread condemnation. And we're still taking baby steps to beat back that condemnation.

Thanks for letting me hijack your blog topic.

Kristie (J) said...

Crankyotter: You bring up a very good point that I'm not sure I made clear *g* The bodice rippers WERE a very important building stone to where the romance novel is today! I read them, enjoyed them for a bit before the mixed message they were sending got a bit too much for me. They acknowledged that yes indeed - women have sexual needs and desires too. They were the pioneers that started the revolution and helped lead to where romance is today. So when that term is still used so frequently and so sneerinly today, not only is it denegrating today's romance, it is also ignoring the roots of the current romance.
And welcome!! Feel free to hijack whenever you want :) I welcome any and all comments.

Jill: Thank you! I think it would be a wonderful thing for the romance genre to get the respect it deserves! I've read books from every possible genre at one time or another and MANY of the writers have incredible talent that equals and in many cases surpasses that of other genres!!!!