Leave my bodice-ripper alone
Anyone who’s ever admitted to reading or writing romance has experienced it, that slight pause in the conversation and the inevitable derisive comment or look, and the inevitable sneering reference to bodice rippers.
Well, I’m here to tell the lip-curlers and sneerers to leave bodice-rippers (and all romance novels in general) the fudge alone. Even if some consider romance novels to be the trailer trash of literature—conceptually and stylistically uglier than a lard bucket full of armpits—I defend the right of all to write and read whatever the hell they want—and without the constant bagging.
Yes, some of the early bodice rippers were a little too rapey for my taste, but those plots were probably a product of their environment. Those early books flourished in a time when women still weren’t allowed to be interested in sex or have their own desires, and so needed sex to be ‘forced’ upon them. Hell, I would argue that women still aren’t allowed to be interested in sex, or at least not without having the ‘slut’ stamp liberally applied to our rosy red buttocks.
To get a little psychoanalytical (come and lie down on my metaphorical couch) I also have a theory that there was more than a wee bit of inner discomfort going on inside women when they donned those enormous shoulder pads to go kick corporate ass in the boardroom. If I were blazing trails, making all the tough work and home decisions, and having to kick butt on a daily basis (while getting all the ‘ball-buster’ comments muttered at me whenever I walked past—by both men and women) I’m pretty sure I’d be diving into a bodice ripper after work hours, where my biggest concerns would be when Lady Va-jay-jay would ‘succumb’ to Sir Shag-a-lot, how creative the sex would be, and how she’d tame the hero (they always got tamed in the end). And after butting heads with sexist jerks on a regular basis, reading about a woman who taught the hero not be such a dick towards women would feel like a cool dip in the ocean on a hot summer day.
My second theory is that the appearance of the corporate ‘power-pussy’, of second- and third-wave feminism, and of the New Age movement in the 70s, 80s and 90s saw the evolution of and re-evaluation of gender roles (remember the SNAG?) and the emergence of a boat-load of guys who weren’t quite sure how to treat women, any woman, either in bed or out of it. No wonder readers were hungry for heroes possessing supernatural certitude and authoritah as well as good looks and magic willies. And not only were men confused, but a whole bunch of girlies weren’t always sure how to act (I think Greg is cute, is that a betrayal of the sisterhood? Mike is being nice but maybe he’s actually being patronizing because I don’t have a dick. Should I be nice back or kick him in the nuts?). Amidst all this confusion and complexity, romance novels were keeping gender politics nice and simple so women could take a mental break before rejoining the gender mud-wrestling match in the home and/or at the workplace each day.
And when sexual harassment laws and equality became big in workplaces, fraternization and flirty looks sometimes became downright dangerous if not forbidden. Any surprise, then, that women devoured office romance novels where the characters engaged in the most naughty and taboo endeavour imaginable—an office romance? And by doing so got to symbolically tell the Human Resources Department to stuff their overly-rigid code of conduct up their ass?
Of course, the ‘alpha’ male and the feisty heroine were popular way before the feminist movement, and remain so in parts of the world where no such feminist revolution has taken place. But is the love of an ‘alpha’ hero necessarily a sign of mental and moral weakness on the part of a reader? Nope. And does a penchant for reading about über-confident Alpha males oozing sexual confidence and domineering ways mean the reader is a dim-witted doormat waiting to be trodden on? Again the answer is ‘nay’.
The fun part of romance with ‘alpha’ heroes has always been when the heroine brings the ‘strong’ hero to his knees, a quite natural power-reversal fantasy on the part of women, and a trope which also pops up in gay and lesbian romance fiction (though minus the gendered division of the roles of alpha and subversive beta).
Let’s face it, genre fiction is a bit like a BDSM dungeon, a safe place in which there are rules and expectations to protect the reader while they try out identities, fantasy role plays, exotic worlds, experiences and emotions which wouldn’t be safe or necessarily fun in the real world. (Though I’m yet to hear of a reader using a safe word with their novel). So the bodice ripper offers the reader who’s not prepared to take any shit in real life the opportunity to try on, even if only briefly, the sexy, naughty sequined hot-pants of ‘submissive’, ‘captive’ or ‘object of lust’ which she’d never wear in public. Or just to root for the determined heroine who’s tying the supposedly stronger, handsome bossy dick of a hero in knots with her actions and words.
So next time someone starts mouthing off about ‘trashy’ romance novels, or bemoaning the bodice ripper, I’m going tell them to shut the Fabio up or I’ll go ninja on their ass.
Peace out, ninjas.