Twice in the last week or so I’ve come across the term “bodice ripper” referring to romance novels. It surprises me that anyone still uses that term. Today I came across an article from The Times Literary Supplement by Lidija Haas, who works at the London Review of Books. She states “For many decades now, the detailed treatment of conventional love and its happy endings has been all but exiled from serious fiction….The romance novel’s exclusion is made more obvious by publishers’ attempts to disguise its true nature, and many books are pitched awkwardly halfway between literary fiction and bodice-ripper.” (italics mine) She further says that even in these awkward half-romance/half literary fiction stories, “the essential story remains that of a plucky young woman, poor, or at least a misfit in some way, who struggles to make her way in the world, facing loneliness and adversity, before at last being rewarded with a conventional happy ending: successful love, and perhaps babies.”
She further cites some novels as examples, but these novels are not romance novels. Perhaps they are those “awkward half literary/half romance” novels she refers to and maybe that’s why they don’t satisfy.
Many of us saw the recent MSNBC poll about whether people read “bodice rippers”. Turns out 46% of people who responded read romance and 23% read it sometimes (a total of 69%). Only 31% said they never read romance.
According to the Romance Writers of America website, romance fiction outsold every market category in 2006, with the exception of religion/inspirational, and 26.4% of all books sold are romance.
Yet, despite the popularity and widespread sales of romance novels, the genre still attracts derision (which I feel when I see the term bodice ripper) skepticism and criticism. There is still a stigma attached to reading romance novels.
Why is this?
According to fiction author Melissa Pritchard, the romance novel "perpetuates something slightly dangerous, that there's this notion, that there's this perfect love out there, and it can distract you from the work of loving yourself."
Janice Radway’s 1987 study concluded that women feel guilty about reading popular romances, and the shame is often as result of husbands who criticize them for wasting 'their' hard-earned money and for spending time absorbed in a novel rather than devoting time to the household, their family and husband.
Does this still hold true in 2008? Do women still feel guilty about reading romance for the same reasons? Do women who take time away from their home, husband and family to read literary fiction feel guilty? How about readers of science fiction? Do men feel guilty about taking time to read a western novel or Maxim magazine? Or is it just the belief that that romance fiction has no value, that we can’t learn anything about human character, relationships or humanity in general by reading such fiction?
When Lidija Haas states “the essential story remains that of a plucky young woman, poor, or at least a misfit in some way, who struggles to make her way in the world, facing loneliness and adversity, before at last being rewarded with a conventional happy ending: successful love, and perhaps babies.” - this too is misleading. If the climax and resolution of a story is just that someone is “rewarded” (for what?) by finding love (and perhaps babies…????) certainly that is not going to be a satisfying story. And yet, the other elements she mentions – a protagonist who is poor or a misfit in some way, struggles to make her way in the world - how is that essentially different than any other novel: something significant happens to the character, who then decides to pursue a goal, devises a plan of action and even though there are forces trying to stop him/her, moves forward because there is so much at stake, the goal being so important to him/her that he/she will do anything to achieve it, struggles against adversity, faces an ultimate decision in a last effort to achieve his/her goal/solve his/her problem, and in making that decision satisfies a need in him/her created in his/her past, giving us a view of his/her depeest character and humanity...?
Many of those who criticize romance fiction seem to think that the protagonist’s goal is simply to find a man, or to find love, at the expense of finding herself. I don’t know of any romance novels (not that I’ve read them all!) where the heroine’s goal is to find a man. Even if it is, that’s not her only goal – there’s a deeper, more complex goal than just finding a man, getting married or finding love.
A good story is emotionally satisfying; it validates our values, and shows us that the struggle to live our values is worth it all. But when the protagonist remains true to her values, achieves her ultimate goal (or sometimes not, but is stronger and better for it) AND finds love – that’s even more emotionally satisfying.
Love is one of the most common themes in any kind of art. Most movies have a love story and most pop music is about love. Because deep inside everyone one of us, despite our struggles to achieve our most important goals or to solve our biggest problems, we all want to love and to be loved.
Anyone who uses the term “bodice ripper” is out of touch with the changes that have taken place in romance publishing over the last twenty years. And I’d like to say that’s all there is to it. But with the negativity towards the romance genre, using that term to refer to all romances is completely misleading and spurious and only serves to further undermine the legitimacy of the romance genre. The term comes across as demeaning to women, with the portrayal of a weak heroine being at the mercy of a hero who forces her to submit to him. But wait…there are stories about domination and submission where the heroine wants to be dominated by a strong man. And if a woman’s motivations are portrayed in a believable and convincing manner, if she is a strong woman who knows herself and knows what she wants, and she wants to be dominated, isn’t that okay? But I still would never call that story a “bodice ripper”…