Rewriting the ‘Bodice Ripper’

Racing heartbeats, open shirts and heaving bosoms; I’m sure we can all picture those tacky and titillating cover illustrations that make the Bodice Ripper so infamous within the realm of romance fiction. Popularised in the 1970s, the genre is commonly associated with patriarchal ideals of dominant men fighting for the heart of the passive woman, where the hero’s rape of the virginal heroine acts as a catalyst for her undying love. Increasingly formulaic in their historical settings and adventure orientated romances, publishers of the 1970s and 1980s knew what seemed to work for their female readership.

While these erotic novels have, of course, come under harsh scrutiny over the years in relation to their depiction of fluctuating gender power dynamics, their creation, alongside social contexts such as second wave feminism, allowed for new discussions regarding female pleasure and casual sexual experiences. Beginning with Kathleen E. Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower in 1972, historical romance novels enabled readers to engage in a similarly obsessive and rose-tinted way that viewers today approach period dramas. The clothing was dramatic and elegant, the sex was taboo and therefore more exhilarating. It is unsurprising to consider just how prominent these novels were within a female readership who, in the wake of the sexual revolution, were beginning to understand their own desires and sexual fantasies.

GIF Source: Giphy

Coming under the authorship of female writers, it does feel strange, however, that such oppressive approaches to female sexuality were so normalised within erotic fiction. But it was not only their questionable gender politics that gave historical romances this outdated and banal reputation. Many Bodice Rippers prioritised heterosexual, cis-gendered romances that jigsawed into conventional and acceptable ideas of courtship during the novels contextual period. Early BIPOC representation has also been drawn to attention through overt fetishization for the sake of ‘exotic’, interracial fantasies.

With such substantial criticism, erotic literature has indeed evolved over time, with alterations and progressive inclusivity that has certainly worked to its advantage. While the literary domain sustains its continuous popularity with expanding sub-genres, the amplification of visual media since the mid-to-late 20th century has inevitably prompted a migration from text to screen. With Best Picture nominee The Favourite taking centre stage in 2018 for its introduction of queer themes and complex historical romance, screen evolutions of the Bodice Ripper are now entering the mainstream. And with such newfound visibility and critical review, modernising their approach to sex via inclusivity and gender relations becomes essential.

GIF Source: Giphy

As the Bodice Ripper expands into wider social discourse, the literary world of lust and romance takes to a new angle. And so, we enter the world of fanfiction, making historical eroticism palatable to a new generation of readers. Equal to its 20th century predecessor in its general hostile reception, fanfiction has still taken the digital world by storm. Dominated again by the female market, with a 2013 survey highlighting 80% of Archive of Our Own users to be women. Maintaining the literary demand for erotic fiction, fanfiction allows writers of the everyday to apply their own worldview and personal experiences to the sexual discoveries of characters. Working often, but not always, with a pre-established cast from novels or the screen, the online community has revitalised the Bodice Ripper with narratives that hybridise fantasy and realism. As well as opening up the potential for erotic literature to external cinematic and literary franchises.

GIF Source: Giphy

It’s understandable that as the Bodice Ripper has appeared more widely in popular discussion and thus opening its pages to more modern representation, that the genre sees a transmedial aging. Whilst steamy TV dramas such as Bridgerton and Harlots revolutionize the market and fanfiction takes a front row seat in expanding sexual narratives for more personal consumption, literary demand still maintains a sturdy position. Continuing to make up almost a quarter of the entire fiction market as of 2016, a strong readership endures. As a genre that has typically been written by women for women, the Bodice Ripper is crucial to the sexual discoveries of its readers. Therefore, in continuing to explore modern sexual perspectives and social issues, the genre as it stands today, in all its medial forms, is far from disappearing into history.

Mia Roe

Featured Image Source: Still via Series Trailer MP // YouTube.

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