This is a repost of my Goodreads blog: On the term Bodice Ripper.
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 term bodice ripper was coined in the 1970s when the romance genre, in its current incarnation, was taking off. At that time print-runs were determined by preorders from sales reps who bought by cover. 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.
Here’s a (very blurry) bodice ripper cover of mine from 1986:
For the record: 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 remotely 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 were more representative of the content of the book and were more likely to feature flowers than clinches.
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 term has not been rehabilitated by the romance reading/writing community 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 faggots. So, why did he feel licensed to put into print such an outdated, not-remotely-accurate term that was evidently being 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 his limitations 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.)
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 a further thought: Let’s call bodice ripper the N-word of literature. Let’s do away with it.
See also: All My Romance Blogs
This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen