Beyond Bodice-Rippers: How Romance Novels Came to Embrace Feminism

The genre is known for promoting traditional gender roles, but a new generation of writers is challenging these conventions.
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In A Lady Awakened, the heroine uses the hero for sex (Bantam)

"Bodice-rippers," the most famous term associated with the romance genre are, according to the book Beyond Heaving Bosoms: ""typically set in the past, and the hero is a great deal older, more brutal, and more rapetastic than the heroine." The heroines were young, virginal women whose purity was of paramount importance to their worth. The rapist-turned-true-love hero was a standard character.

Bodice-rippers and their contemporary counterparts were popular during the 1970s, occupying the same cultural space as the feminist movement but seeming to represent its polar opposite. As feminists were fighting patriarchy, romance novels were propping it up. Despite a major shift in the genre in the late 1980s and early 1990s that saw the near-disappearance of rape and the emergence of much stronger, more modern heroines, the idea remains that feminists and romance readers exist on opposite ends of the spectrum. This is not the case.

Dr. Jackie C. Horne, a writer, independent scholar, and author of the site Romance Novels for Feminists, says that the women who now write romance novels grew up enjoying the benefits of the feminist movement. These authors, Horne says, "take feminist ideas that were once novel, provocative, on the very edge of inconceivable for granted, as givens." In Alice Clayton's Wallbanger and Lauren Dane's Lush, both heroines are adamant that their careers not suffer in order to make a relationship work. They negotiate long-term committed relationships with men who treat them as equals. And, as is par for the course in most romance novels, these women seek out sexual pleasure and they enjoy sex. These are not the romances of the 1970s.

Yet problematic tropes remain in the genre. Delphine Dryden is the author of erotic romances including her popular The Theory of Attraction. Dryden acknowledges that she is working within a genre in which she still sees some writers relying on tropes of "slut-shaming, learned helplessness, and heroines who are too stupid to live or who don't take responsibility for their own reproductive welfare." Cecilia Grant is the author of historical romances including the soon-to-be-released A Woman Entangled. "A romance novel, by definition, privileges the romantic relationship above other aspects of the characters' lives," Grant says. "And in a culture that already bombards women with the message that finding and keeping a man is their most important goal in life," she argues that "it can be difficult to make a case for romance as a feminist-friendly medium."

Feminist romance authors often embrace the problems in romance fiction and then write plots that actively do the opposite of what readers expect. This subversion of audience expectations is often jarring because, as a reader, you are bound to notice actions and emotions that are not what you assumed would happen.

Grant sees this tension between feminist ideology and the traditionally conservative genre as a welcome challenge to feminist romance authors. "How, respecting the genre and working within its defined parameters, can I write a love story that's palatable to me?," Grant asks herself when deciding the plot for her next novel. "Are there specific trends and devices it might be worthwhile to subvert?" In Grant's first novel, A Lady Awakened, the heroine uses the hero in order to get pregnant. She is not initially interested in emotional intimacy or love. The heroine is the one taking charge of her sexuality and her future while it is the rake who we find crying about how he feels used and eventually begging his love for a long-term commitment.

Sarah MacLean is a New York Times bestselling author of historical romances including Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake and her most recent release, One Good Earl Deserves a Lover. MacLean says her novels are feminist because "the heroine is the hero of the story and she is taking action." It is not that she is pushed into making a change in her life because of an outside force but rather that, "she decides her life is unacceptable and she pushes" against that. MacLean uses the heroine of Nine Rules as an example of this, saying that "at its core from the title on, [the book] speaks to the breaking of the rules I try to write into all of my books." The heroine feels that she is too old to marry, is frustrated by her boring life, and so decides to draft and complete a list of nine things that women in 1813 in England rarely get to do. She smokes, she drinks, she fences, and she kisses men.

Heroines making choices are critical for feminist romance authors. Dryden says that she, like MacLean, writes heroines who make choices, "even if the choices available to her are limited by convention or circumstance. She acts, rather than be acted upon." Anna Cowan, who blogs regularly about romance, will soon release her debut novel, My Lady Untamed. Cowan believes that feminist romance "tells its readers: you can make your own decisions, and expect your world to respect your right and ability to make your own decisions." Victoria Dahl is a bestselling author of both historical romance and contemporary including A Rake's Guide to Pleasure and Good Girls Don't. Dahl says that "my characters are always, always feminists. Not in the declarative sense, but in the living-that-life-every-day sense." She says her "books aren't about selfless women who are just trying to do what's right for others. They want to do what's right for themselves." In Dahl's Good Girls Don't, the heroine, an accountant and co-owner of her family's brewery, pursues the hero despite objections from her brothers. She demands that they respect her decision, she enforces boundaries, and she doesn't apologize. Her family eventually comes around.

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Jessica Luther is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. She is a PhD candidate in the History department at University of Texas. She writes about sports and culture at Power Forward.

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