Feminist romance–is this news?

Overall, I enjoyed this recent article in the Atlantic: Beyond Bodice Rippers: How Romance Novels Came to Embrace Feminism.  But is this really news?

The article quotes Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels: “Bodice-rippers are typically set in the past, and the hero is a great deal older, more brutal, and more rapetastic than the heroine.”

I never did read any books like this when they were coming out in the 70s and early 80s, but I’ve read some recent reviews of such. Here’s one that had my eyes rolling back in my head.  Feel free to indulge your morbid curiosity if you wish: Purity’s Passion by Janette Seymour, a Review by Redheaded Girl.


As a child, I read my mother’s Regency romance novels. I only started reading longer, sexier historical romances when I followed authors like Mary Jo Putney, Jo Beverley and Loretta Chase as they moved to writing longer books. Except for being set in the past, there’s no resemblance between their historical romances and the description above. The romances I like have heroes and heroines who worked through their conflicts emerging as equals, despite a historical backdrop where gender roles were more rigidly defined.


So maybe I missed something but it seems to me that the romance genre has been moving away from the abusive hero/submissive heroine setup for decades and it isn’t a “new generation” of writers who are inventing this.

I’m woefully ill-read—life has done that to me—so I haven’t read most of the books mentioned. Did I miss another shift? The article implies that the new feminist romances subvert the stereotype. Does this mean heroines can now be as selfish and abusive as the heroes used to be? Actually, I doubt it, knowing some of these authors.

So help me out.  Is something really changing in the genre or is it a continuation of the shift to strong heroines and more equal relationships that began decades ago? And did you ever read of those Bad Old Bodice Rippers? If so, what did you think?


About Elena Greene

Elena Greene grew up reading anything she could lay her hands on, including her mother's Georgette Heyer novels. She also enjoyed writing but decided to pursue a more practical career in software engineering. Fate intervened when she was sent on a three year international assignment to England, where she was inspired to start writing romances set in the Regency. Her books have won the National Readers' Choice Award, the Desert Rose Golden Quill and the Colorado Romance Writers' Award of Excellence. Her Super Regency, LADY DEARING'S MASQUERADE, won RT Book Club's award for Best Regency Romance of 2005 and made the Kindle Top 100 list in 2011. When not writing, Elena enjoys swimming, cooking, meditation, playing the piano, volunteer work and craft projects. She lives in upstate New York with her two daughters and more yarn, wire and beads than she would like to admit.
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2 Responses to Feminist romance–is this news?

  1. librarypat says:

    Good grief, I just finished reading the review of Purity’s Passion. I am rather glad I wasn’t reading romances back then. It doesn’t appear there was much romance in the book at all. The closest any book I read came to This book was THE WOLF AND THE DOVE by Kathleen Woodiwiss. I read it over 15 years ago when I first started reading romance and I am not sure what I would think of it today. The only similarity would be the slightly brutish behavior of the hero. Rape was a threat, but I don’t remember it happening. The hero was a good guy and the heroine was not a brainless, helpless ninny but rather a strong, determined woman.

    The current trend in BDSM stories has brought back force and domination. I won a book in this genre several years ago and read it not knowing anything about the genre. Sorry, but I don’t see the romance in a “tie me up and punish me” story line. Some , obviously enjoy it, but it isn’t for me.

    I think the biggest shift is in admitting women can enjoy sex and it is OK. It doesn’t make her evil or loose. I think they are showing some of the traits male characters were “guilty ” of before like having a career being very important and not being interested in a family. Some are even a bit more self centered and selfish than was previously acceptable. Again, traits one used to find in heroes who “reformed” by the end of the story. I guess it is all part of social evolution.

  2. Elena says:

    Besides the abusive heroes of the past, there were a lot of heroines who seemed overly “perfect”–in an old-fashioned sense of being perfect: beautiful, young, innocent (translates to “ignorant”–how is ignorance a virtue?), self-sacrificing to the point of martyrdom and dare I say it?–not too bright.

    I’ve always liked heroines with some flaws. (And I don’t regard being sexual–having knowledge, enjoying sex–is a flaw. That’s just being human.) What I mean is not knowing the sources of real happiness, perhaps chasing after the wrong things but learning from the experience.

    I want to believe the couple will find happiness together so whatever flaws either or both have, I want to see them get a little wiser through the course of the story.

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