The term “bodice ripper” has had a few definitions over the years, each with their own slight difference to it. One is that it is “a sexually explicit romantic novel or movie with a historical setting,” which seems relatively tame. However, other definitions are a bit more specific. For example, Merriam-Webster says it’s a “historical or Gothic romance typically featuring scenes in which the heroine is subjected to violence.” If you’re anything like me, the addition of word “violence” is very concerning.
However, it’s not exactly inaccurate.
When I first heard the term as a young reader, I had an admittedly naïve definition. I always thought it was called that because the hero, since it was always a hero instead of another heroine, was in such a fit of passion he would rip the bodice of the heroine before taking her. Which honestly is a bit impressive and infuriating since bodices are not easy to rip and they’re expensive.
As I got older, I realized that the phrase was used because violence, especially that of a sexual nature, was a factor in many of these early novels. Fellow Rioter Nikki did this awesome piece on the history of consent in the romance novel earlier this year, so I would strongly recommend reading that as well to get an idea of why this was such an unfortunately accurate assumption.
Ultimately, though, “bodice ripper” is a dismissive term for romance novels and the genre as a whole. But is it even accurate anymore? Is it something that we should still be using in this modern day and age to describe any type of romance? Or, should it be eradicated completely? Well, that is a bit more complex.
Let’s take a few moments and break down the different stances on it to see if an answer can be found.
There are people who loathe the use of this phase, even ironically. Even if they prefer to read historical romances, they don’t refer to them as “bodice rippers.” These are also perhaps the most aggressive defenders of the romance community overall. Which isn’t to say that others don’t defend it, because they do. But this faction is very quick to snap at people who use this term that isn’t an accurate term for the genre.
Now, make no mistake, most people who use this phrase outside of the romance community are making fun of the genre. It isn’t a term of endearment when it comes from them; it’s a term of disparagement. That is part of what causes the knee-jerk negative reaction whenever this phrase is uttered.
These are those who accept the term and sometimes even use it themselves in passing. Now, “love” is too strong of a word for their feelings towards it, though. Worst case, it’s grudging acceptance, especially for those who feel the phrase is not going to go away anytime soon. It’s irrelevant whether it’s accurate or not. But reclaiming it is a fun way to stick it the patriarchy that seems determined to destroy anything women enjoy. As the song says, a lot of people are trying to prevent girls from having fun.
And if you doubt that aspect, remember there’s a reason that the first all-romance store in America was named The Ripped Bodice. While I would argue a good portion of that decision was a giant middle finger to the haters, it also is taking on what was intended to be a dismissive moniker and profiting off of it. It’s immediately recognizable: I don’t think any intelligent person walks into that shop expecting to find mysteries.
This is the camp that I fall into. I don’t like the term, so I tend to not use it, unless I am specifically describing old school romance like from the article Nikki wrote. But I’m not calling for it to be stricken from the common vernacular completely.
Honestly, it’s a good and quick way to let people know the type of story they can expect, what they’re about to get into. And, regardless of how ugly as it may be, it is part of romance history. As with any type of history, it’s not all pretty, but it’s something that we have to acknowledge.
What it comes down to is the question: does the term bodice ripper have a place in Romancelandia? And the answer is, “Yes, but.”
Yes, but only for those early years of romances where there was the notable lack of consent. However, it isn’t accurate for romances being written now. Nowadays, the women in romance novels can own their sexuality on multiple levels, sometimes with multiple partners. Even though society is still trying to browbeat women into a position of sexual subservience and not being in control of their own body, we’re no longer having it.
So, yes, the term has a place in our history and the books contained there. But it does not have a seat at the table presently.