Just Bodice Ripping Porn?
How people describe the romance genre is frequently out of touch with reality. Ali Williams, Aja and Virginia Heath talk about how they overcome these Fake Views.
Ali Williams - Challenging False Perceptions Academically
This month’s Vive La Difference topic is one that resonates with me so darn much.
As a romance academic, I’m constantly challenged about why I read and study romance, and whether I agree with Radford or Modleski. The short answer to that is a resounding 'No!'. I’ve no interest in academic work that focuses its research on whether reading romance is good for women; that’s so damn patronising!
As a genre, romance is continually belittled, in the press and in the social consciousness – never mind the fact that it’s a multi-million dollar industry that resonates with millions of readers worldwide. And I’m always willing to point out the strength in having a branch of the publishing industry that is dominated by women at all levels!
I’m currently working on a PhD in romance at the moment; half thesis, half novel. My research focuses on challenging one of these falsehoods, that of the ‘passive’ heroine.
Now it is, of course, important to contextualise the idea of the passive heroine. There are plenty of examples where the heroine is a bit of a drip, or too stupid to live, however, my argument is that in many cases, a quiet or shy heroine is not passive – she is introverted.
There are great examples of this; Sara Craven’s Wild Melody from 1977 has a very quiet heroine who spends much of the novel shyly watching from the sidelines but she has autonomy when it comes to her own desires, and she has an incredible speech about homelessness. There’s real strength in reading a character who seems reticent until their challenged on something that they feel really strongly about.
So my PhD is looking at the introverted heroine in Harlequin Presents / Mills & Boon Modern as a feminist figure. If I had the time or the word count, I’d expand that to looking at the introverted heroine across romance (in single titles, different subgenres etc), but unfortunately, my supervisors have had to rein me in.
And I’m not the only one. Popular Romance Studies is an ever-expanding academic field with its own academic journal, and academic books that range from looking at love as the practice of freedom in romantic fiction, to the literary art of category romance. Those romance falsehoods are being challenged daily, and long may it continue!
Aja - It's Not Gratuitous Sex
I’ve been reading romance for a long time and I believe my story sounds much like every other woman I heard talk about their introduction to romance. My mother being an avid reader had collections of romances, mostly of the historical variety and I consumed them right along with her selection of Stephen King and Dean Koontz. And I was 12. I may not have understood the emotions being expressed in the romance, but I couldn’t understand the emotions of those found in the thrillers either. I just enjoyed it.
So when I grew into an adult and continued my voracious interest into the romance genre, I never questioned that romance would be treated any differently than any other genre written. Why would it be? Love is a human emotion and sex well, it’s an activity shared by so many creatures, and one that human beings enjoy very much. I know I sure do. But as time grew, I realized that romance writers, and readers, were seen with a different lens. As if we aren’t serious and neither is the writing. Is that belief offensive to me? Yes. But do I care? No. Writing about love requires that I love. At least it does for me, so I ignore the negativity and proceed with my stories and engage with my community with love.
However, there is another perception that comes from within the community of readers, and unfortunately some writers as well, that I’ve often dealt with. And it’s that all I do is write sex.
Admittedly sex is part of romance, at least the romance that I write. And again, admittedly my sex is pretty damn hot, but writing for me is an expression of self and well… I’m not cold in any sense. But my sex scenes, or the chemistry shared by my couples, are far from gratuitous.
There is a story there, and each thing they do, including their lovemaking, is about their story. It’s about how they feel. Maybe there are couples that exist in a marriage or relationship, where no sex happens, or the sex lasts a few minutes, or where one just lifts a leg and the other gets off, but who wants to read about that? Who wants that as a fantasy? I sure don’t, and I was once told to write the stories I want to read and gosh darn it, that’s what I do.
I like to write about women who are not afraid of their sexuality and are unashamed about expressing it. She, whoever I write, is not misguided, nor will she be shamed into submission by some man who thinks she needs to be tamed; not in my stories. She can’t be tamed. She is a woman. The woman, my mother, who bought and read as much romance, as she bought and read sci-fi and suspense, and thrillers, that woman couldn’t be tamed in her thinking and she allowed me the freedom to choose what to set my mind on and in turn, I write what the hell I want. There is a reader for my work. There is an audience for it. So, what do I say to the negativity committee? “Go find your book and your tribe. Leave me and mine alone.”
Virginia Heath - Can We Have Some Context Please?
According to huge swathes of the population, I write bodice-rippers. That’s fine. I’m not all uppity about it or insulted. If anything, I’m philosophical.
It’s just a label. A tag which lets a reader know roughly what’s inside the package, but it’s an outdated tag which, like all things, needs re-evaluating in the 21st century. I write Regency romances, my heroines wear a bodice and at some point that bodice will (if the hero is worthy and the heroine gives him permission) come off. Does that make them bodice-rippers? Not really, any more than the Regency tag means my stories are hither-ing and thither-ing everywhere like they would in a true Regency-set Jane Austen.
I think that is the bit missing in the bodice-ripper tag. Context. Something which is so hard to pin down because it changes and evolves as civilization changes and evolves. See, I told you I was philosophical! Once upon a time, when men always wore the trousers and the world was a very different place, the alpha hero ruled between the pages of a good romance and the heroines were compliant and would ultimately succumb. He would be brave, fearless, a man’s man and he would protect you. Those were the key attributes of the early 20th century alpha.
If you read some of those novels today, they are eye-opening. In this #MeToo age where matters of consent, sexual discrimination and equality are at the fore, it is difficult to find anything sexy in a hero who takes what he wants and uses his superior physical strength and overbearing manly allure to dominate the heroine. Bodices got ripped, the heroine’s swooned and I don’t doubt that those romance readers lapped it up with the same enthusiasm as their modern counterparts do their favourite books now.
But like all history you have to view it through the lens of the readers at the time. The right to vote, for example, we all take for granted and the days of wives promising to obey in their marriage vows, knowing the laws at that time also jolly well expected them to as well, are thankfully long gone. In the bodice-rippers of old then, it is hardly surprising that the heroine’s and readers expected the same of their romantic heroes. Look at the contemporary movie equivalents, they are no different. Did Dick Powell or Errol Flynn ever stop swash-buckling to wonder if they were being domineering? Did they ever give a heroine any choice in their happily-ever-after? Of course not! They were alphas of their time.
And who are we to judge those old definitions when we don’t have the same context? Most of us are lucky enough never to have lived through a war. We don’t know what it’s like to fear death on a daily basis. We didn’t have to grow up in an environment where the majority of the eligible male population were off fighting; an environment where many never came back and for a while there weren’t enough of those brave boys to go around. Hardly a surprise then, that for our grandmothers, the tough, alpha hero who risked his life and fought hard for what he believed in was an ideal.
Early 20th century heroines too, also have to be viewed through a different lens. They are nearly all, to coin a phrase from a good friend of mine, wet lettuces by today’s standards. In King Kong, poor Fay Wray spends most of the movie either pathetically screaming or slumped unconscious in that giant monkey’s fist. Women were supposed to be demure as well as pure, and aspired to be such. If one dared buck that trend, then I would end badly. Look at Scarlett O’Hara. She was a female alpha who went after what she wanted and didn’t let anything stand in her way. By the end of Gone with the Wind, that behaviour does not get her the man. It gets her a guaranteed future filled with loneliness and regret.
Like the heroes and heroines in both literature and movies, bodice-rippers have moved on. Heroines in modern historicals are feistier and have a purpose in the plot other than showcasing the hero’s many manly talents. Had they truly lived in their time periods, their forceful, independent shenanigans would never have been allowed. Their bosoms still heave, just as bosoms have for all time, but now for quite different reasons. The modern historical heroine wants to have her cake and eat it, and usually makes the hero feed it to her.
The heroes too have changed. The alpha of old is dead and buried alongside our grandmother’s old-school romance books, and in his place has emerged a new beta/alpha. They have depth as well as biceps. Feel and show emotion rather than simply aggression or lust. They are confident yes, but that confidence allows them to appreciate the new-look (in relative terms) feisty heroine for all that she is. They respect the heroine, listen to her, and become better men because of her. Bodices still get ripped, but now in the passionate heat of the mutually consensual, emotionally satisfying and totally equal way the 21st century romance reader demands. The Bodice-ripper is dead. Long live the new Bodice-ripper! Until the next generation comes along and the context changes all over again…
When was the last time you read a romance novel? Have you recently read an old book which made you cringe or a new one which surprised you? What do you consider the most irritating fake view of romance? Leave your comments here or join the discussion on our social media using #FakeViews
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