A Rant on Bodice Ripping, Or Why We Think The New York Times is Sexist

September 21st, 2004 · 5 Comments
by Booksquare

Since the growing market for Christian romance isn’t news (just as street lit isn’t news and so on), we are going to, once again, note that the so-called “paper of record” clearly has no respect for its female readers. Not only does it persist in perpetuating an image that, frankly, hasn’t existed since we were allowed to read novels, but uses the cliche to insult the reading choices of every person who buys romance novels. Since that group is almost (but not entirely) wholly female, the insult could not be more clear.

Why do romance authors and readers object to the phrase “bodice ripper”? We’re so glad you asked. First, of course, is the dated nature of the term. It may have been acceptable in a certain era (we’re not sure when, but we’ll allow the possibility), but so were many terms (does the NYT persist in using the term “boy” to describe a group of adult males?). Use of the phrase insults both the readers and the authors of romance novels. It suggests that the books are not real fiction (despite the fact that much of the publishing industry depends upon romance and other genre fiction to keep the doors open). It creates the impression that the books are trashy. It creates the impression that anyone touching such an object is less intelligent than the readers of, oh, comic books (which garner a higher level of respect from the NYT than romance novels).

Second, of course, is what bodice ripping represents: violence and coerced or forced sex, in some cases, rape. Yeah, that’s a concept a major newspaper should be bolstering. If any of the brilliant reporters employed by the Times bothered to do their homework, they would learn that a ripped bodice almost always accompanied violent sex (if not sex, then another form of violence like captivity, slavery, and so on). Putting a woman in her place. Forcing her against her will. Using physical strength to subjugate another human. Yes, it represents so many fine human qualities. Of course we want to be reminded of them over and over (and over).

Novels don’t only focus on reality; sometimes, they explore fantasies. Women and men use different methods to fantasize. For many women, novels are the preferred method. If reading Playboy is not shameful, why is reading romance or erotica? We will not deny the existence of the so-called rape fantasy in some of these stories — if you scratch the surface of any human, you will find they think about things they would never truly want to experience. For some, this is skydiving. For others, it is brutal male domination. During a period of time, exploring the rape fantasy was very fashionable in publishing circles. The men buying novels liked the concept; the women who wanted to sell the novels wrote to the market. Then they rebelled.

Romance novels, like all good novels, focus on the human experience. Sure, they tend to focus on love and commitment, but if you’re thinking that’s not a part of the human experience, we have to wonder what planet you’re from. And, yes, there’s sex. We’ve done a few unscientific surveys, and have yet to find a person who doesn’t find sex to be good. Perhaps it’s our social set and we should expand our sampling, but mostly sex is seen as a positive thing (though romance being what it is, there is often exploration of why sex can be bad for some people and how to change that). There is focus on life, birth, death, senseless violence, happiness, sensible violence, social change, and quiet moments. None of these themes seem to us to be worthy of insulting labels. While sometimes the stories are implausible, sometimes they’re trite, sometimes they do pull punches, romance novels are regular fiction.

The New York Times cannot write about romance without insulting it and women. Note the subtle dig about mostly middle-aged women. Would a similar story about male authors focus on their age? Does it matter that they’re middle-aged? What is middle age anyway, with forty touted as the new thirty and all that. Life being what it is (and society being what it is), sometimes women (and men) have to wait until they’ve done other things before they can focus on their dreams of writing. We get the sense that Times writers are trying to be clever or, perhaps, observant, but they usually come off as patronizing.

If you don’t read romance, that is certainly your right. But we suspect many people read the genre without realizing it. Certain types of stories have universal appeal. It should not be cause for put-downs. We do not denigrate the intelligence of football fans, though we are convinced there is no intellectual appeal to the sport. We avoid the games, but allow that it speaks to something inside its fans.

Editors and writers complain that every time they use the term “bodice ripper”, they get angry mail in response. We suspect this case will be no different (we also suspect Times editors will scratch their heads and say, “I don’t see this as insulting.”) Demeaning reader choices and endorsing violence toward women is not something to be applauded or supported. We are going to guess that news sources like the New York Times need female subscribers far more than female subscribers need the NYT. We have lots of choice.

Finally, it is damn hard to rip a bodice. They are not lightly constructed garments. Designed to keep the evil female body from the view of lecherous males, they were thick and ugly (fine, perhaps some were attractive). It gets back to our previous statement, but ripping a bodice requires brute, violent, angry strength. Such a waste of clothing, don’t you think?

File Under: Square Pegs

5 responses so far ↓

  • A. M. Wilson // Sep 21, 2004 at 1:34 pm

    Thank you! As one who is not middle-aged and DID attend (as well as help run) that conference for the AMERICAN CHRISTIAN FICTION WRITERS (they even got the name wrong) I applaud what you have said here. While at this conference our board members voted, unanimously, to encompass all genres of fiction in our name making it American Christian FICTION Writers once all the legalities are settled for the change. This article had nothing to do with the change and the reporter had not even gotten to the conference when this meeting took place.

    I got to this blog address from a post one of our ALMOST 600 members (NOT over and that was never said) sent.

    In Christ,
    A. M. Wilson

  • Margo Carmichael // Sep 21, 2004 at 4:50 pm

    While I wish the term and age reference had not been used, I enjoyed the overall tone of the informative article. Joshua Kurlantzick represented our motivation and modus operandi well. And he was, overall, courteous and respectful to Christians, who often are treated as the only group deemed fair game for bashing by today’s so-called pc standards, as if we who worship Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior didn’t have First Amendment rights, too. Overall, I really liked the article. Had Mr. Kurlantzick attended author Randy Ingermanson’s hilarious talk on Male Point of View, with all the tongue-in-cheek letter terminology re forbidden words, he’d understand that we all agree on avoiding some terms, and I now hereby suggest another such term–BR. : )

  • Susan Gable // Sep 21, 2004 at 4:50 pm

    They didn’t do their research, did they? (Where is my surprised look?) My “favorite” bit was the part about the editors sitting in rooms at the conference, thumbing through stacks of story proposals. Yeah, like that happens at a writing conference where the cardinal rule is: Leave the manuscript at home!

    So, they just don’t know how to actually do their jobs and research. In fact, I’d daresay, most romance writers I know probably do a better job of researching their novels than was done with that article.

    We also do more to avoid cliches than they do by plastering the term bodice-ripper in the title. I mean, obviously they don’t get what the term means, or else they certainly wouldn’t apply it to Christian romance of all things! (Which doesn’t mean it should be applied to other romances, either, but still…sheesh. Learn what a word means before you use it, huh?)

  • booksquare // Sep 21, 2004 at 9:00 pm

    I will agree that the article was (mostly) courteous in its treatment of its subject matter, but feel that by setting a patronizing tone in the headline, it lost many readers. Had I not been particularly interested in this issue, I probably would have bypassed the story with “same old, same old” attitude. The article was brought to my attention by the first author mentioned and I read it because of her excitement. Normally, I figure the headline informs the content — which is unfortunate.

  • booksquare // Sep 21, 2004 at 9:06 pm

    This is the second time in a month that the Times has used bodice ripper in a major article on the industry. That disturbs me greatly. You’re right in saying authors do better research in their novels — is it because of the belief that real life is less insane than fiction? Only the most warped mind can beat reality!

    I keep getting back to the fact that the use of the b-r term shows a lack of respect for women. It prejudges an entire genre of books and an entire class of readers. I know far too many lawyers (and academics, etc) who read romance to accept this terminology. Yes, that’s a soapbox you see under my desk (and I bet you thought it was because I can’t reach the ground without it!).