Thursday, January 17, 2008

Where Did All My Buttons Go?

I've been thinking about the term "bodice ripper" a lot lately. Probably because I work with librarians, and let me tell you, librarians (at least the ones I tend to work with) are very fond of the term. Despite my vast efforts to educate them. I tell them that 99.9% of the romance authors I've met bloody well hate the term and a lot of readers find it insulting as well. Saying the word to the wrong library patron will either cause 1) frothing at the mouth or 2) they won't say a damn thing, feel alienated, and never darken your doorstep again. I tell them to forget the word even exists. You'll get in less trouble that way.

Now for me personally? I don't have a problem with "bodice ripper" as long as it's used in the correct context. Which, inevitably, it rarely is by people outside of the romance reading community.

Let's be honest here. Looking back at the history of the romance novel, a lot of those early stories were bodice rippers. That's just what they were. You had the jackass Alpha hero, the virginal good girl miss, and much heaving of bosoms ensued. Some (not all) of these types of stories were overwrought, melodramatic, and in many cases, completely over the top. Hey, that's why people read them! They were exciting! They were page turners! It was like a soap opera for your brain! And let's be honest, if you were desperate for romance novels back in the day, you didn't have a lot to choose from. You took what you could get.

But romance novels today? I have a hard time defining any of them as bodice rippers. Even those select few authors that write in what I call a "throwback" style or feature some less than popular elements (oh, like "forced seduction"). These books are few and far between these days. Oh sure, they exist. We all know they exist. But it's hardly like the market place is flooded with them. They're the exception, rather than the norm.

Unfortunately, most people not in the know still use the term bodice ripper because they haven't read a romance novel in recent memory. They read one romance novel back in 1985 where the hero kept ripping off the heroine's dress and they've tarred and feathered the entire genre with that brush. So from here on out everything classified as a "romance" is a bodice ripper. The cover art isn't exactly helping our cause either, especially given the proliferation of bare chested men. Nakedidity, regardless of gender, has a way of screaming "Beware! Beware! Many Bodices Ripped!" Dang, sometimes it screams that to me, and I'm a romance reader!

Part of me wonders if we, as the romance reading community, should try to take back the word or if we should keep howling in disgust when people not-in-the-know fling it around carelessly. Personally, I like the word to describe the genre's history - but can totally see why authors get hopping mad when some clueless idiot sneers, leers at them and says, "Oh, you write bodice rippers." Like they're somehow feeding propaganda into the patriarchal machine. Geez

So what say you? Annoyed by the bodice ripper term? Want to start throwing rocks at people who fling it about with careless abandon? Or are you like me? Think the term has it's place in history but wish people would put it in the proper context?

Of course, maybe I need to quit trying to distinguish it for people and just commence with the rock throwing.


Megan Frampton said...

I hate the term when it's used in ignorance. Very few of us write bodice rippers (I don't think I read any, not that I'd turn my nose up, but they're just not out there), and it's such an automated response from any non-romance reader, it's just dismissive.

And inside my head I say 'Fuck you,' and outside I say, 'that term doesn't apply anymore, you're about 20 years out of date,' which I hope is a more genteel way to say 'fuck you.'

Grr. My heart rate is going up as I type. I really hate the term.

Catherine said...

I admire Megan's decorum.

Another term/phrase to enrage, that my mother uses when describing the mountain of romance novels I've consumed over the years is the dismissing...'oh I see you still read those penny dreadfuls'...argh.When I would defend my reading choices I'd get a 'I'm only relating historical precedence to production values...' Still it comes off as a dismissive term.

I'm glad that I can say that in the library I worked at, the term wasn't spoken.Mixed bag of other biases mind you, but at least that term wasn't used.

I did sometimes get frustrated with how the books in the Romance section were often overlooked in regards to display when my supervisor would be particularly nasty, I'd go make sure that section really shone.Gawd that sounds so pass/agg..the intention was to make something positive for patrons in job position with very little power.I'm currently back at University finishing my degree, before most likely doing my Masters in Library.

I wonder if the people that generalise and dismiss with a term like bodice ripper, also find it easy to generalise with broader issues? Is this symptomatic of some people who, for whatever reason, chose to ignore diversity of thought?

Cathy in AK said...

Like you, Wendy, I'm fine with the term if "bodice ripper" is used in its proper historic context/reference to throw back works.

Risking your wrath for pimping another blog, go take a look at for a sampling of retorts to dissing romance.

Rosie said...

I think I'm on the same page with you. IMO, it's a question of tone and context. Any time someone's reading material is commented on derisively there's likely to be a problem. So even politically correct words can be used in a snide tone and still raise one's blood pressure.

Amy said...

"Bodice ripper" I can deal with, and I think Wendy wraps it up, in a nutshell, just how the term should be used. But what gets my goat is when people refer to the books I read as "trash" or "smut". Hey, y'know, there's a time and place, and I can just about bet that my "trash" and "smut" books have educated me a HELLUVA lot more than Good Housekeeping or Cosmopolitan.

My mom just rolls her eyes in exasperation when I even mention my book collection, but I promise you that those very books, the ones I adore, are the very reason that I went and started a historical non-fiction book collection and read up on history, geography, and current events.

Carolyn Crane said...

Hey, I love your site, and this post. I remember there was a discussion on Bettie Sharpe's blog about adopting a new name, the way comic books went to graphic novels. I don't know if that would work or not. There is such a strong bias, I'm almost with Rosie - a fair term delivered snidely is just as bad.

As somebody who has relatively recently come over from literature (I see romance and its subgenres as a center of intense creativity and frankly, superior entertainment) I can say, the bias is rock solid. Literary friends who know me, know I'm not insane or daffy, can't square me reading romance. Nobody wants to mention it. It's a bias, like you say, that is SO out of date, but people don't want it corrected. Like it's comfortable.

Anonymous said...

I hate the covers of some of the books out today. What's inside seems to have nothing to do with the cover and I don't care if the man, the woman or both have their tops off.

By the way, have you thought about how much force it would really take to rip off a shirt from the 18th century? Those things were made to last--no cheap thin cloth for them and sturdy seams. Try to rip one of those off with a pull and you cause serious damage to the person wearing the shirt/dress.

I always wondered where that idea came from (probably the movies) cause in real life it would be extremely difficult to rip off a bodice. And, what would you get, layer after layer of undergarments. Check out a museum sometime.

Wendy said...

Megan: I'm like you. I try reason but inside I'm screaming expletives.

Catherine: Penny dreadfuls?! I'd be like, "Mom, the 19th century called. They want their slang back." LOL

Cathy: There is never any wrath when it comes to blog pimpage.

Rosie: Too true! Even the most benign words can carry venom when delivered in a catty way.

Amy: Yeah, the trash label bothers me a lot too! I've long believed people reading, regardless of their choice in reading material, is a GOOD thing. It's my bread and butter after all.

Carolyn: While the graphic novel distinction has brought some respectability to "comic books" I have encountered librarians that treat them disdainfully. That might be because they get stolen all the time though.....

Anon: LOL at the layers of undergarments! That is too true. And one really has to wonder about the potential for "rippage" considering the quality of materials back in the day. I mean, the nobility wasn't exactly known for partaking in a lot of manual labor so I can't imagine there were very many muscle bound blue bloods. Now the stable boys - I bet they could rip bodices with the best of them!

Big Sis said...

Like me defend all the non-readers of Romance with brains.
Whenever I hear/read the term "bodice-ripper" I assume the person means the steamy, soft erotica stuff that was called "romance" when I was in high school (the 80's--eh hmmm). I do not think (though I never have read) genre Romance is all alpha males ripping the clothes off the heaving bossoms of shocked and titilated virgins (to paraphase Super Librarian). Anyway, you said it best in a post a while back "do I really care what other people think?"

Catherine said...

Wendy had a nice snort reaction to your advice re:my mum. So accurately called and yet so futile. Apparently I got the name Catherine because she liked it after reading Wuthering Heights...sort of projecting a bit of mad relationship mojo onto me at birth...yay.

I do like all the other points that have been made with this too, provides a nicely rounded discussion.

Kate Diamond said...


Comic books re: graphic novels... they actually refer to related but distinct groups of publications. I know this because The Fiance is a comic nerd.

This is an oversimplification that would drive him insane, but: if the binding can be stapled, it's a comic. If it's all gluey-and- spine-y, it's usually a graphic novel.

If anyone's looking for an awesome example of the genre, check out Frank Miller's "Sin City" series. And then there's Art Spiegelmen's Maus, one of the best books of all time. Also a graphic novel. Also a Pulitzer Prize winning work.

And how could anyone treat the graphic novel with disrespect? Hello! Art Spiegelman! "Maus" is one of the best books EVER. So sad.

Kate Diamond said...


In terms of the phrase "bodice ripper," well, I guess I feel about it the way some of my gay, lesbian, and transgender friends feel about derogatory names for non-heterosexuals (for lack of a better term).

(a) They feel hurt and offended if someone uses a name as hate speech, and either crawl off offended or rip the hater in question a new one

(b) They feel annoyed if someone uses a name in ignorance, but if the person is truly uneducated about the topic they'll patiently explain why it's offensive

(c) They sometimes call each other (or themselves) by the offensive name, as a way of claiming the word back, or taking the sting out.

Now, clearly the level of persecution between calling someone a "f@$@ot" and dismissing my reading as "bodice rippers" is nowhere near the same. However. I react similarly. I blast or write off the people who dismiss my reading choices so ignorantly. I try to educate the well-meaning types who just don't know what they're talking about. And when one of my stuffier colleagues asks me what I'm going to do on the weekend, I usually say something along the lines of, "Write a pornographic sex scene for my trashy, trashy bodice ripper."

That's right. I use the term "bodice ripper" sometimes. Because everyone at work thinks of me as an educated but innocent Girl Scout. And I like to mess with their heads.

Sorry. I realize that's an incredibly long response. But what a great topic! I guess I had a lot to say.

ephramyfan said...

I always found the term embarrassing when I was younger and just getting into romance novels at the library. I refused to check out books that had covers with bodice ripping on them for fear of the librarian saying something lol.

I don't read a lot of historical romances any more really, although you can find the bodice ripping (well shirt) in contemporary romances.

Ana said...

I hate the term and I hate all the misconceptions that come from the non-romance readers. In fact today I posted about it in my blog too.