Saturday, June 21, 2008

Bodice-Ripper & Other Romance Stereotypes

A few days ago, MSNBC ran a very scientific poll about whether or not people read romance novels. And by scientific, I mean, they had three options: (these are not taken verbatim, but are my interpretation.)

1. Won't read anything else

2. Sometimes.

3. Are you crazy? I wouldn't be caught dead reading that trash

It seems the majority of those polled read romance. Not really a surprise, considering the most recent Romance Writers of America stats show that 26.4% of all books sold in the US are romance, and it generated a revenue of $1.37 billion. So someone's reading all those romance novels.

What troubled me about that poll, however, was MSNBC's use of the term "bodice-ripper" to describe the genre. Um... hello? How dated is that term? Did MSNBC bother to actually research their poll, or did they think romance novels are still referred to by that almost-offensive term?

It dates back to at least the 1970s - and generally referred to either the clinch covers (some of the cheesiest covers ever, raised to an art form), where the heroine was spilling out of her dress and the hero was also half-naked. Or, from the plot, in which it was quite common for the hero to use force in order to coerce the heroine into bed. One of the most famous historical romances (and one of my personal favorites) is Kathleen Woodiwiss's The Flame and the Flower - and in it, the hero actually rapes the heroine. But it all ends well. Still, that is no longer considered an acceptable plot device, as rape is really about violence and domination - not romance at all. But, since the heroes were beastly and generally tore clothes off the heroines, the term "Bodice-ripper" was born.

And it died out quite some time ago - but MSNBC seems to have (sadly) not bothered with their research, or else they would have known it.

I also read on another blog, that there are actual covers sold, to slip over your romance novel so no one will be able to tell that you are (insert gasp here) reading a romance novel.


For the longest time, I was very sheepish about the fact that I wrote romance novels. I can't tell you how many times I've heard, "Oh, you write that trash? I never read it."

Okay, how do you know it's trash then? If you admit to how, then obviously you HAVE read it and I gotcha!

Or my favorite - "Oh, you write chick porn!"

Um. No. Porn has no real plot. It doesn't have to have a HEA (at least, not in the sense of one man and one woman riding off into the sunset. Happy ending has a totally different meaning in the world of porn).

My stories have conflict, and plot. They aren't just a bunch of sex scenes strung together and punctuated with awful dialogue. I try to create real, flawed people that readers want to root for and see end up together. Yes, my love scenes tend to run to the fairly steamy, but it isn't about the actual sexual act. It's about two people learning to trust, or learning to share, or letting each one into the more guarded recesses of their psyches. Sex is the symbol, not the reason for the story.

These stereotypes certainly don't help legitimizing romance as a something beyond what bored and lonely housewives read for escape (don't even get me started on that one. That's another grrr post right there). Romance is as legitimate a genre as suspense, or horror - and yet it's still looked down upon.

I love reading romance and I love writing it. Give me an HEA any day. The genre's come a looong way since the days of "bodice-rippers" - and I just wish that some people could grasp that concept and treat romance just like any other genre. I don't act all sheepish now when someone asks me what I do for a living. I tell them, I write romance.

And I'm pretty proud of that. =)


Marian said...

That reminds me of when I used to post on a discussion board devoted to debates about religion, atheism, creation, evolution, etc. As you can imagine, things got a bit heated at times, and I loved it. I had a reputation for being a bit of a badass. Well, OK, more than a bit.

Each time the discussions touched on romance novels, someone would call them "mindless fluff" and someone else would refer to Fabio. And at that point I'd post something like, "You know, my manuscript is a romantic fantasy."

"Oh, we didn't mean you," they'd reply quickly.

Then I'd post a little to describe how far the genre has come. Sure, there's stuff that's permanently mired in 1970, but there's plenty of great romance novels that don't deserve to be tarred with the bodice-ripper brush. Pamela Morsi and Lorraine Heath come to mind right away, for instance.

I think romance is like any other genre that way. It's just that romance is easier to bash than others, perhaps because of the covers. Some of them can be quite, er, striking. Each year I participate in the Cover Contest that used to be run by All About Romance, so I've seen quite a few which might inadvertently help to bolster the bodice-ripper stereotype.

Caroline said...

I have to say that I started reading romance novels, Harlequin, when I was 15 or 16 (now I'm 41). But anyway, I expected my night in shining armor to ride up on a white horse and just take me away, but of course I grew up in the 'hood and the only horses you saw back then were the ones ridden by cops.

A few years ago, I read Ties that Bind by Brenda Jackson and I have to say that I raved about the book. I do have to say that I'm not a romance gal. I just don't pick them up anymore.

Don't all girls dream of romance, etc.? What happens when you get older?

Kim said...

I've been there - the backpedaling is pretty much worth the insults. For the most part, people seem more fascinated by the fact that I'm a Real Live Writer, than they are dismissive of what I write - so it's all good in the end.

Oh, I'm almost 37 and I still dream of knights in shining armor - it's just that the knight is a little older, and maybe has a little gray mixed in with his sinfully dark hair =)

WendyCinNYC said...

I think there are people who are dismissive of ANYTHING that tends to appeal to women. Take movies..."chick-flick" is often meant as a put-down as well.

It doesn't surprise me that MSNBC did this particular poll -- several of their commentators are of the He-Man-Woman-Hating variety.

I also was put off by the YES! YES! YES! option if you wanted to choose that you liked romances. Kind of orgasmic, no?

Anonymous said...

I'm just thinking about writing a short paranormal for Harlequin, so good to hear some of the stereotypes laid out. Bodice Ripper--I like that.

Kim said...

Unfortunately, I don't think the old "bodice-ripper" tag is going to ever go away completely. How sad, because there really is so much more to romance that those clinch covers and dated plotlines...