The Evolution of Romance Novels

Warning: there are going to be some touchy subjects in this post. Trigger warnings: rape, kidnapping, abuse.

I love romance novels. They can be cheesy and overdone, and a lot of historical romances read like a soap opera. I’m still a sucker for them. Recently, I decided to go back and read all of the books written by one of my favorite authors in the order they were written/published.

I didn’t expect her earlier ones to be great. Most authors get better over time. As far as writing, characterization, and melodrama were concerned, the first two in her portfolio were as I expected. Not great, but still readable, with a few moments that I enjoyed.

What I had forgotten about (having read these books when I was much younger) was the use of kidnapping and rape as a route to romance. The first one was Stockholm Syndrome all the way. The heroine is kidnapped and forced to submit to her kidnapper because he wants her. But it’s okay, because even though she tells him ‘no,’ her body wants it (riiigghht). And after a hundred pages of shame and anger, suddenly, she’s in love with him. Because that’s how it works (heavy dose of snark there).

The second book is another Stockholm Syndrome love story, but the rape is more blatant in this one. In fact, it happens repeatedly. The word rape is used at least twenty times in the book. And then boom…the heroine is like “Whut? I ain’t mad.” At one point, she even says something along the lines of “Well, yeah, he raped me. But he didn’t kill anyone, so it’s okay.”

Yes, I’m taking the stories out of the context of the time they were written. Yes, I’m overlooking the fact that they fall into the category of “bodice ripper” romance, which apparently is all about the man taking control and using force to show the woman how desirable she is because he can’t help himself. Reading other reviews of these books, I found that many people were disgusted at the material. Others were very much of the mind that these were written in a different time and can still be enjoyed as a work of fiction.

Dude, you're in the middle of a field. But some pants on!
Dude, you’re in the middle of a field. Put some pants on!

These novels were also considered “historical romance.” So even if the time they were written wasn’t reflective of that time period, is this justified by the fact that during the time period it was set in, those things were common? These books weren’t without their “sweet” moments, but it wasn’t always easy to get over how someone could go from hate and anger to love and acceptance that quickly.

These books were published in the late 70s and very early 80s. I also read some novels from the mid-80s (different authors). There wasn’t any rape in these ones, but the chauvinistic male was prevalent.  In one novel, the man told the woman constantly that she was his…within the first day of meeting her. When she told him she wasn’t interested, he continued to seduce her. Which, okay, I suppose the whole “winning her over” thing was supposed to be romantic. But there was a distinct lack of respect for the woman’s boundaries.

In another one, the man verbally berates the woman to get a reaction out of her. He never apologizes. Once she agrees to date him, he refuses to allow her to do much of anything else. She can’t talk to her other male friends. She can’t go out without him. She pretty much as to let him know what she does and does not do. Yet in the end, she’s fallen in love with him, can’t live without him, blah blah blah. He never changed at all, but we’re supposed to believe that she’s going to be happy with him.

In some ways, those books were more offensive to me than the others.

There has definitely been an evolution in romance novels though. I’m not saying there aren’t still horrible ones out there that make the woman seem weak or stupid, but with regards to even the aforementioned author, her later books involve strong women who give as good as they get. They also feature women who aren’t “the most beautiful creature on earth,” but instead have something else that wins the hero: kindness, a sense of humor, etc. The heros are no longer “I take what I want” types, but gentlemen who might steal a kiss or two (which is still frowned upon…I know), but they keep it in their pants until things get consensual.

I’m not trying to make a statement about rape culture or feminism in this post. I just think it’s interesting the way literature reflects certain views of the time, possibly without meaning to. I read all kinds of things, so it’s hard to offend me, but I understand that many people wouldn’t be able to get past the scenes in these novels.

I’m reading the third book published by the author, and I’m fifty pages in with no rape of the heroine (though there has been rape of other characters…like in the opening scene). There has also been some dismemberment. The tone of this one is much darker…I’m not even sure how this is going to turn into a romance at this point.

If you’re interested in seeing the books I’m talking about, you can follow me on Goodreads. I’m also interested to hear what other people have to say on the subject.

Do you guys like bodice rippers or do you find them offensive?

A.

 

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2 thoughts on “The Evolution of Romance Novels

  1. I like almost all Johanna Lindsey’s novels with the exception of A Pirate’s Love – and some of her older ones can definitely be considered bodice rippers. I’ve read some bodice rippers by a few other authors, and I can agree about the kidnapping and Stockholm syndrome being used a route to romance in some of these books. (Fortunately, in the ones I’ve read, rape had rarely been used as a route to romance.)

    However, I am very grateful for the evolution in romance novels. Though I still like my heroes alpha, they are now well-balanced by equally strong heroines.

    • Agreed. The novel is best when both characters are strong. I’m a fan of the banter and dynamic when they both give as good as they get. I’m currently reading “Fires of Winter,” and after the original raping and pillaging scenes, it’s become surprisingly tame.

      Thus far, A Pirate’s Love is my least favorite. There are a few of hers I’ve read multiple times (Angel, The Heir, and Joining). When Lindsey is on, her stuff is great.

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