Bodice Ripper. The term’s use (or misuse, as the case may be) by columnists makes me want to gnash my teeth and rend my garments. Recent articles detailing signs of the economic recession have referred to romance novels in a variety of disparing ways, but no term has the power to set my nerves on edge like bodice ripper. One headline actually declared a Bull Market in Bodice Rippers. Ugh! Have the journalists writing these columns checked their calendars recently? It’s 2009, not 1974. Romance novels have evolved during the thirty-five years since Rosemary Rogers published Sweet Savage Love as surely as personal computers evolved from the Commodore 64.
The term bodice ripper generally refers to a historical romance novel in which the heroine is viewed as a sex object by the hero, the villain, and possibly even the man in the moon. The covers of the novels typically featured the heroine is a state of barely-clothed disarray, with heaving breasts that would give Pamela Lee an inferiority complex, and a testosterone-fueled hunk whose lusty stare is rivaled only by Colin Farrell after six months in a monastery. The novel that started it all was Sweet Savage Love. I remember sneaking to read my mother’s copy of this book, and honestly, I never made my way through it. The hero was a brute, an ill-mannered thug who made the teenaged boys I knew seem like regal princes by comparison, while the heroine had the mental capacity of a blow-up doll. I decided to stick to writers like Barbara Michaels, who wrote stories with gothic elements and heroines who actually possessed working brain cells. It wasn’t until years later, when I picked up a novel by Jude Devereaux, The Raider, that I fell in love with the historical romance genre. Her heroines were smart and spirited, her heroes fueled with enough testosterone to be hot and sexy, but not so much that they behaved like the Incredible Hulk in a traffic jam. Best of all, the heroes and heroines actually liked and loved each other for reasons other than their ample bosoms and muscular, furred chests. Was sexual attraction a part of the story? Sure. Isn’t sexual attraction a part of real life romances? But as in real love stories, it’s not the only part, and in a well-written romance novel, sex is only one ingredient in the mix.
Today, the term romance novel is a broad indicator of a story with a heroine, a hero, and a happily ever after. Other than that, there are no hard and fast rules. Historical romances are set throughout human history. Stories of medieval knights, Southern belles, and English nobility transport the reader to another place and time, while paranormal romances create worlds beyond our everyday reality. Vampires, shapeshifters, ghosts, extraterrestrials – the possibilities are unlimited. Contemporary romance, romantic suspense, inspirational, chick lit – all fall under the category of romance novel, though the subgenres are quite distinct. However, there are some similiarities between all of these that distinguish today’s romance genre from the bodice ripper of the 1970s. First, the heroine and hero must each possess gray matter (just kidding here, though if you've read some of the early books, you might wonder if Ira Levin was the only one who’d written about Stepford Wives). Seriously, the hero and heroine are each motivated by goals and motivations, and there are conflicts that threaten their relationship. Any good story has a conflict. Would The Wizard of Oz have become a classic if Dorothy had landed in Oz, taken the tour of the Yellow Brick Road, stopped by to share complexion hints with the Witch of the West (who may not have been so wicked after all), and hopped the first balloon back to Kansas? Would Icabod Crane have become an enduring literary figure if he’d simply graded papers and avoided his confontation with the head-challenged horseman? You get my point. In addition, the hero and heroine each evolve through the story as a consequence of their relationship as well as other factors in the story. This character arc is crucial to a romance. Without it, you’d might as well be reading about June and Ward Cleaver (for the younger readers of this blog, google Leave it to Beaver…smile). Whether the story is taking place in Richmond in 1865, England in 1298, or London in 1820, these elements are critical to the story’s emotional resonance.
In my opinion, the character arc is lacking in many of the 1970s bodice rippers. The hero and heroine each represent a stereotype that remains essentially unchanged from the beginning to the end of the story. Since the characters don’t grow and change, it’s difficult if not downright impossible to develop an emotional connection with the characters. And in reality, isn’t emotion the heart of a romance? Whether a reader is interested in steamy sex scenes or a love story that never peeks beyond the bedroom door, the growing emotional bond between the hero and heroine draws the reader in. The first stirrings of love, the growth of trust, the feeling that one has found a kindred soul…these are the ingredients in a love story that keep me reading. In all fairness, Rosemary Rogers and her contemporaries pioneered a genre in which romance was depicted both out of the bedroom and in it. Those early novels set the stage for romance novels in the twenty-first century. The romance novels I read, and write, feature heroines who stand up to their heroes as fiercely as they love them, women who might need a rescue from time to time, but also run to the rescue when their man is in trouble. In short, heroines who will stand by their man, but never walk behind, heroines who mirror the independent spirit of the women who read and write romances in 2009.