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Before the first season of Outlander aired, outlets like Vanity Fair wondered if the show had "what it takes to be more than just a bodice-ripper.” The implication was that while “women [were] already in the bag,” it was a “huge mistake” for the show to market itself to a female audience. Despite Outlander books having topped New York Times bestseller lists, apparently female interest is inherently too niche.
While Outlander’s continued success has proven otherwise, even managing to attract male fans, the misconceptions around historical romance and the skepticism aimed toward the genre are nothing new.
“In the popular imagination, the term [bodice ripper] is used very loosely, I would dare say promiscuously,” laughs Jayashree Kamblé, a professor of English at LaGuardia Community College and author of Making Meaning in Popular Romance Fiction.
While historical romance remains a major part of the romantic fiction genre today, experts agree that bodice rippers describe a short and specific moment in American publishing history that lasted only between the early 1970s and mid-1980s. Replacing shorter and serialized novels with more sexually explicit books inspired by the popularity of The Flame and the Flower, released in 1972, bodice rippers met reader demand and flooded the market with mass-produced romances. This was where the cheesy book covers we associate with romance novels (and later Fabio) came from.
While the content and style of romance books has evolved, the term “bodice ripper” has hung around, largely as a joke made at the expense of romance novels, partially in homages made by contemporary romance writers, and in large part because there’s just something so evocative about the term. The bodice ripper moniker has followed the Outlander series since the first book was released in 1991, and author Diana Gabaldon publicly distanced herself from the romance community, likely in an attempt to appeal to audiences scared away by the genre’s lowbrow reputation.
Cover art is in large part to thank for this enduring reputation. While books were written for voracious female audiences, it’s largely agreed that covers were designed for men. As male cover artists transitioned from working on the pulp novels of the 1940s and 1950s, they carried over a style and artistic point of view that focused on how female characters looked. Before female readers could buy books, stores had to stock them, and it’s widely understood within publishing that salacious covers were made to appeal to male booksellers and their expectations of the genre. Featuring women with chests heaving out of their tight dresses, clutched in the muscled arms of men with open shirts, scantily clad characters quickly became a visual shorthand that appealed to the male gaze and signaled to readers what kind of storyline they could expect. These were the only books available for voracious romance readers, and publishers interpreted high sales numbers as a sign that formulaic and camp book covers worked.
“The cover art, which was absolutely about period clothing, was probably where the term [bodice ripper] originated,” says Kamblé. By 1979 the New York Times and Chicago Tribune were using the term dismissively.
The connotation, that bodice rippers are stories about “passive women having titillating sexual experiences for people to giggle at,” has remained, says Maya Rodale, best-selling romance novelist and author of Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels Explained. Rodale says that before she began reading romance she had the same impulse to laugh at the genre, which Kamblé suggests is a reaction to deep-rooted American puritanism and why critical reception to romance novels remains so limited and shallow. The word “bodice” is suggestive enough to inspire pearl-clutching and awkward titters, but it still dances around frank terminology and clear conversations about female sexuality. Saying “bodice” is preferable to naming what the covers are really showcasing: boobs.
Representing some of the problematic politics of the 1970s, rape is a major plot device in many bodice rippers, meaning that in most cases the ripping and removal of clothing isn’t consensual. With heroines eventually falling in love with their rapists, the books offer an uncomfortably sanitized glamorization of rape and romance that modern readers understandably find difficult to contend with, says Bea Koch, who has a master’s degree from NYU in fashion history and co-owns the romance bookstore the Ripped Bodice.
One common theory mentioned by Koch was that this plot device was popular because of the era’s repressive sexual attitudes, appealing to women who wanted sex but didn’t feel like they were allowed to openly express those desires.
Kamblé doesn’t agree with this theory, postulating that these stories deeply address another cultural issue of the time, where “rape was a real part of women’s lives and a constant threat,” but victims of sexual assault were saddled with the stigma of being tainted or “second-hand goods.” By incorporating romance, and having a woman marry the man who took her virginity, a heroine avoided having to find someone else who would want a “ruined” woman. The plot device largely disappeared during the 1980s, suggesting that “forced seduction” might not have been as titillating and popular among readers as publishers assumed.
This is a legacy that romance authors and readers have had to contend with says Koch. “It’s something I think about a lot,” she says when explaining why her store’s name uses the past tense. “We didn’t want to evoke rape and sexual assault, but we did want to pay homage to the history of the genre.” Some authors, like Rodale, engage with these themes in books like What a Wallflower Wants (which she wanted to call The Flame and the Wallflower), which offer non-glamorized portrayals of sexual assault, tackling the topic for “modern audiences with modern values.”
Besides grappling with these heavier themes, many modern historical romance authors also include Easter eggs and fun homages to bodice rippers in their stories, often through references to clothing. Tessa Dare includes a ripped bodice in each of her novels and hands out bodice repair kits at book signings, while in Lord of Scoundrels, Loretta Chase subverts the cliché by having her male protagonist’s shirt ripped open. Today’s historical romance writers use ripped clothing as more than a sign that characters are in a hurry to get naked; they’re winking at readers and making fun of a stereotype that for decades has been used to disparage the romance industry.
“The funny thing about bodice rippers is that bodices are hard to rip! They’re made with bones of steel!” laughs Rodale. Koch also points out that before mass production, clothing was expensive and difficult to replace, making ripped clothing more fantasy than historical reality.
While some of the authors who founded the genre may not have have focused on historical accuracy, contemporary authors take these details seriously. There are workshops where historical authors can watch how each layer of clothing is put on and taken off, and Pinterest has given writers like Loretta Chase a platform to share boards featuring the fashion research and reference images she uses to dress her characters.
Historical romance readers care about authors getting these details right, according to Koch and Kamblé, because period clothing communicates so much more about a person’s class, marital status, and position in society than a contemporary outfit like jeans and a T-shirt ever could. Unbalanced class and power dynamics are an easy way to create sexual tension and can place barriers between lovers that heighten their desire and a novel’s drama. The various figurative and literal layers of clothing also push sex scenes to be more inventive, creating opportunities for prolonged stripteases and requiring “a maid or a man who knows his way around woman’s clothing,” says Rodale. She wryly adds, “you [always] want some historical accuracy in your sex scenes.”