Bodice-Rippers and the World of Romance
When I think of a bodice-ripper, I picture a mass market paperback book, the spine lovingly worn and cracked. I picture a beautiful woman thrown across or against a man, and of course I imagine the back of her dress unraveling—hence the name bodice-ripper. Many of the real covers I’ve seen have been much like this, the man on the cover dressed like a cowboy or a pirate or some interpretation of a gangster. These covers always make me laugh, and over time they have become recognizable to most readers, whether or not they’re familiar with the romance genre.
In the past I had read a couple of romance novels—by which I mean books published in the “romance” genre, not “fiction” or “young adult”—taking place between office coworkers or college students. I had not read a bodice-ripper until I discovered Courtney Milan’s work. Courtney Milan is a NYT bestselling author of historical romance—a.k.a., what one might consider to be bodice-rippers—and I became familiar with her in early 2020 when much of book Twitter was discussing the RITA awards (named in honor of the first president of the Romance Writers of America (RWA), the organization that hosts the awards), the biggest ceremony in the romance writing community. Milan was a prominent member of the RWA before she was suspended for speaking out against racist writing and caricatures in other members’ books. This sparked a major discussion throughout the writing community at large (not just the romance writing community), and ultimately resulted in the RWA crumbling.
This was how I learned who Courtney Milan was, and I followed her on Twitter for a while, enjoying her commentary on everything from writing to politics to TV shows. She spoke at length about her experiences with the RWA, as well as her experiences as a female author of color in a massively whitewashed genre. Milan writes historical romance, which is notoriously white, but as I read through her tweets, I learned that she often included main characters of color, especially characters who were Chinese American like herself.
So I decided to give one of her books a shot. I found a copy of Unveiled for two dollars at my local Half Price Books, and it was a small pocket paperback with obvious signs of love—a many-cracked spine, dogeared pages, and creases on the cover. When I first started reading it, it was slow-going for me, because I haven’t read much historical fiction in general. Soon enough, I found myself becoming enamored with the two main characters and the turbulent friendship-turned-love that they shared. What was so special about Unveiled, though, was that so much of it was about the characters coming into themselves as individuals who have value simply because they exist, not because other people tell them they are important. The romance was certainly the focus of the book, but it did not overshadow the journey each character went on as they grew comfortable in their own skin, despite being surrounded by a society that was determined to make them feel worthless.
I am embarrassed to say that I had previously viewed bodice-rippers and historical romances as things to snicker at. They’re certainly not for everyone, but they’re not meant to be. The people that read books like these adore them and are unfailingly loyal. There’s something special about a book that lets you slip into a time, many moons ago, when ladies wore beautiful flowing gowns and fantasized about a duke untying their corset. And of course there’s something to be said about a book that allows a woman—especially one who lives in the context of the 1800s—the freedom to have sexual fantasies and desires and pursue them with a partner of her choosing. This is made all the more impactful by the fact that romance (and historical romance especially) is a genre that is largely aimed at women readers, giving them the freedom to read about—and enjoy reading about!—sex.
Again, romance books aren’t everyone’s first choice, but I think at its core the romance genre is about happily ever afters and providing readers with warm and fuzzy feelings. There’s so many subgenres to choose from—historical, erotic, suspense, etc.—that dismissing it all as cheesy, formulaic, or bad is lazy. I think giving a bodice-ripper a chance couldn’t hurt. At the very least, you might learn something about courtship practices of the Victorian Era.