Bodice Ripper: Thoughts on the Term (Re-repost)

by | March 22, 2021 |

I’m re-reposting a 2017 repost of my Goodreads blog from 2014: On the term Bodice Ripper. It is my response to Ross Douthat’s op-ed in the New York Times today. He uses the term to describe a wildly popular Netflix series based on a series of novels understood by their readers to be romances. And he does so in a piece entitled “What the 2020s Need: Sex and Romance at the Movies.” So, why choose the label ‘bodice ripper’ rather than ‘romance’? Perhaps to clear the ground for ‘real romance’? Namely, the kind of narrative so-called serious readers don’t routinely denigrate?

What I originally wrote:

On May 2, 2014, the New York Times reported the sale of Harlequin Enterprises to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. The NYT reporter opened his piece by writing that when the acquisition was announced, “cheap jokes inevitably started to fly. It was, needless to say, a bodice-ripper of an acquisition.” After a few more jokes of this nature the reporting got, one might say, serious.

Hm. What year is this?

The Origin of the Term

The term ‘bodice ripper’ arose in the 1970s when the romance genre, in its current incarnation, was taking off. At that time book sales reps bought by cover and thereby determined print-runs. The sales reps were men. It turned out they ordered more books when the covers had busty women, the bustier the better. The covers depicted what was called the clinch. It featured long waving locks and lots of skin. And that was just Fabio. Initially the sales reps drove the design of the covers to feature bodices that, if they weren’t exactly ripped, were at least skimpy enough for the heroine to be falling out of.

The title image for this blog is the hideous cover Warner Books/Popular Library gave me for my first book with them.

The problems: The heroine of For Love of Lord Roland is not blonde. Neither does a scene even remotely like the one depicted on the cover occur in the book. Nobody wore hot pink in the Middle Ages.

The buyers of these paperbacks – mostly women – pushed back. They didn’t like the covers because they didn’t have anything to do with what went on in the book. The readers were less annoyed by the heroine’s cup size and more irritated when the hair color was wrong. Eventually they complained to publishers and got what they wanted. By the 1990s the covers represented the content of the book and were mostly clinch-free.

The Problem with the Term

The term ‘bodice ripper’ is pejorative. It is a facile dismissal of the things that must go on in the books with the silly, titillating covers of the 1970s and ’80s. The romance reading/writing community has not rehabilitated  the term in the way that the gay community took control of the word ‘queer’ and made it their own. Romance readers and writers know that bodice ripper is a term of abuse, and they don’t like it.

So, bodice ripper covers haven’t been around for about 30 years. And the term has not been claimed and reformed by the community it was aimed at. I am sure the NYT journalist who reported on the sale of Harlequin wouldn’t write about an event affecting the gay community as having anything to do with [fill in the gay slur of your choice]. So, why did he feel licensed to put into print such an outdated, wildly-inaccurate term used in the newsroom/chatroom, while he and his buddies were exchanging … let me see … “the cheap jokes” that … let me see, again … “inevitably started to fly?”

What are the possibilities?

1. He’s uncomfortable with female sexuality.

2. He’s uncomfortable with his own sexuality.

3. He’s secretly addicted to romance novels and so must denounce them, just as the closeted evangelical pastor must declare that “homosexuality is a sin.”

4. He’s aware of his limitations as a writer and so must project them onto the genre he is reporting on, hoping to direct the word ‘cheap’ in “cheap jokes” onto the romance novel and not his own writing.

5. He is not aware of his limitations as a writer and was not troubled to go for the most trite, most (truly) inevitably obvious thing. (And he no doubt thinks romance novels are formulaic.)

The End of the Term

Here we are living in a sex-saturated culture, and it is still okay to denigrate, even in passing, an entire genre by reducing it to tales of (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) ravishment. If the stories were just that, why wouldn’t that be okay? But the stories aren’t just that. They never were. Not even in the ‘70s when the bodice ripping covers and the term of abuse came into being.

Romance is a wide-ranging genre. Sure, at its worst it’s crap (and that holds for any form of writing, including journalism). But at its best it includes examples of astutely-observed explorations of human pair bonding that are psychologically sophisticated, emotionally engaging, and beautifully written. And it all gets tarred with the same brush? Go figure.

Okay, I can figure. The romance has been the “profane text” since its inception in the 12th century, when these narratives were first written in a Romance language. They were distinguished from the “sacred text,” namely the Bible, written in Latin.

Dichotomizing objects in the universe into categories of Sacred and Profane serves some people and disadvantages others. Who is now served by assigning the romance genre into the category Profane? Oh, right. That would be the New York Times, with its Sacred book reviewers and book reviews.

Here’s a thought: romance writers today are to literature what Impressionist painters were to the Salon system in the late nineteenth century.

Here’s another thought: Let’s do away with the term ‘bodice ripper.’

Final Note: March 2021

Douthat is right. What the 2020s need is sex and romance. And not just at the movies. Oh, and, guess what, Ross? 2020 had both all along. In romance novels. There’s a reason I had 100,000 visitors to my site last year. And that number isn’t even very big by romance standards. The desire and need for romance is global. This past week alone I’ve had downloads for my free story, The Alpha’s Edge, from West Bengal India, Karbala Iraq, and Istanbul, Turkey.

See also: All My Romance Blogs 

Fabio: Classic Cover Model Hunk

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This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen

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