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.
"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.
Perhaps there is no greater example of the impact of feminism on the romance genre than in the way it "routinely foregrounds women's sexual desire," Olivia Waite says. Waite is the author of historical and historical paranormal romances including Hearts and Harbingers and Damned If You Do. Horne says that when she returned to reading romances in the late 1990s, she "was shocked by the explicitness of the sex, at least initially." But the very radical nature of these scenes drew her in as a reader: "A book that showed a man giving a woman oral sex, and both enjoying the experience? Taking both physical and emotional pleasure in it? I was hooked." Waite says that romance novels are the place in our culture where "women are seen enjoying sex, desiring a partner, and having orgasms that are about feeling orgasmic rather than merely looking orgasmic." Grant puts it succinctly, "romance is one of the few places where a woman is a subject in sex, rather than an object." As often as one is likely to see a romance trope that feels old and regressive, one will read a scene where the hero cannot wait to pleasure the heroine with oral sex. Looking around at pop culture at large, there is no other space where such scenes happen, especially not regularly.
Ruthie Knox, author of contemporary romances including Ride With Me and Along Came Trouble, says that if a romance novel is to be labeled as "feminist," the sex in the book "should be mutually pleasurable or that its failure to be mutually pleasurable should be presented as an issue in the novel, rather than the natural state of things." Knox's female characters are vocal about their wants and their dislikes with their partners. Through her characters, Knox shows her readers how to communicate about sex, something women are rarely taught to do in pop culture. Grant echoes that romance novels have the ability to not only turn their readers on but, in fact, show their readers what exactly turns them on: "romance (being written by women as it is) is a way for women to explore what we'd like sex to look like, and to define sexual success or validation for ourselves."
Still, there continue to be romance novels published where consent between the main characters is fuzzy. Robin Lynne, a scholar who writes on romance at the site Dear Author, argues that we should not see this as a failure of the genre but rather how it reflects the ambiguity of real life. "Women struggle with our sense of physical vulnerability, in some instances every day. So why would it be a surprise that a genre consumed by intimate relationships between men and women would not also be consumed by the issue of sexual force (and other types of emotional and physical coercion)."
This is complicated by the fact that a fair amount of women find sexually dominant men to be titillating. And almost any romance author you speak to about the genre will quickly tell you that what they write is not true life but a fantasy. The critical space between what one reads and likes and what one actually does is something that critics of the genre must remember, especially because their own policing of women's desires is the product of the patriarchal system they are trying to criticize. MacLean argues that "we have to give ourselves permission as women to have fantasies. We aren't saying that men should threaten sexual dominance or harassment or abuse. But it's okay if we, at some point, find the idea of that threat hot." In a society that often wants to boil women's sexual experiences into the polar opposites of purity or sluttiness, romance novels, even when we may as individuals judge their plots to be problematic, are the largest cultural space available for women to read about and imagine their own sexual fantasies. Therefore, as Lynne says, the range of fantasies that will appear in the genre is going to be wide.
The potential for a romance novel to be feminist exists each time an author sits down to write one. Lynne argues that "Romance novels are as feminist, or anti-feminist, as anything else in our society: namely, that it depends on the novel, but most of the novels we're talking about are produced within a society that is heteronormative and patriarchal (and most privilege whiteness, as well)." A genre centered on women, written primarily by women, and consumed mainly by women cannot be ignored because it can teach us about what women want. "Romance," Cowan says, "even when it's not feminist, gives us a reference point to begin looking at our own biases and desires." The very discussion about where women derive pleasure and why is a feminist project.