The post isn’t very clear about exactly what it’s asking, so I’m going to interpret it as asking the following questions:
What does the term ‘bodice-ripper’ mean?
In what context did the term originate?
To what extent do these novels feature violence?
How do readers and critics interpret the violence?
The Oxford English Dictionary says:
bodice-ripper n. colloq. a sexually explicit romantic novel, esp. one in a historical setting with a plot involving the seduction of the heroine
The earliest citation given is:
1979 N.Y. Times 2 Sept. xxi. 2/5 Vanessa Royall is..enjoying a good reputation and lucrative income as the author of the sort of breathless historical romances (the latest is ‘Come Faith, Come Fire’) that are known in the publishing trade as bodice-rippers.
The term is pretty transparent: a bodice is an item of clothing worn by women in 16th to 18th century Europe (a popular setting for historical romances), and its laces might be ripped during enthusiastic or coercive sex. So a suggestion of violence is implicit in the term.
The 1979 citation above says that ‘bodice-ripper’ was “known in the publishing trade”. It seems likely to have been a recent coinage, because a similar article in New York Magazine just a year earlier goes through a list of descriptions of the genre without mentioning the term:
And that brings us to the Historical Romance, aka the Erotic Historical, the Sweet Savage Romance, or irreverently, the Hysterical Romance. [Turner, 1978.]
The modern genre of historical romance is often described as beginning with the publication in 1972 of The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss, which is
one of the most famous in the bodice-ripper tradition. These books are typically set in the past, and the hero is a great deal older, more brutal, and more rapetastic than the heroine […] This novel is, in many ways, the Platonic ideal of the bodice ripper. The heroine’s bodice is, in fact, ripped; the hero is appropriately arrogant and hard-edged before being brought low by the power of love; swashes are buckled; buckles are swashed; villains are suitably hideous; and the adventure runs at quite the fever pitch. No noun or verb is left unmodified, and Woodiwiss works simile and metaphor to limp exhaustion. It was a runaway bestseller and spawned countless books that followed, with various degrees of success, that particular formula, such as Rosemary Rogers’s infamous Sweet Savage Love. [Tan and Wendell 2009.]
An important contribution to the success of The Flame and the Flower, and the novels that followed it, was an innovative publishing model:
The woman who started the whole fad is Avon executive editor Nancy Coffey, who, six years ago, launched The Flame and the Flower upon a world that hadn’t known what it wanted till it got it. As she tells it, to get her through one potentially unendurable weekend, she plucked a huge manuscript from the “slush pile” (unsolicited manuscripts). She couldn’t put the damned thing down, she couldn’t get it out of her head, and eventually she persuaded the company to publish it as an Avon Spectacular, a paperback original with all the promotion and advertising support that, till then, only a best-seller reprint merited.
It was a new idea with a new—fateful—angle. Nobody reviewed paperbacks. In the case of a hot-blooded melodrama with more verve than style, might that fact not turn out to be a plus? And why not convey the book directly to its natural drugstore, chain-store, subway-riding paperback audience rather than going through usual farce of snide notices from ex-English-major critics? It worked. And how. [Turner, 1978.]
These were immensely popular books: Turner gives a table of sales showing that as of 1978, The Flame and the Flower had sold 2,655,500 copies; Sweet Savage Love 2,729,000; and many other works in the genre exceeded a million sales.
The plots of ‘bodice-rippers’ make frequent use of violence, sexual coercion and rape. In The Flame and the Flower, the heroine Heather:
kills a man who was attempting to rape her. Two men, who mistake her for a prostitute, seize her and escort her onto a ship. The captain of the ship, Brandon Birmingham, rapes Heather. Brandon tries to bribe Heather by offering to set her up in an affluent house as his mistress. She angrily declines. An enraged Brandon then takes Heather hostage and attempts to rape her again. The rape left Heather pregnant, and she reveals what happened to her aunt and uncle. Brandon is tracked down and a magistrate forces him and Heather to marry. [Condensed from the summary in Wikipedia.]
In Sweet Savage Love, the heroine Ginny:
finds herself enduring chapter after chapter of rape and forced prostitution, eventually stabbing her prime tormentor, the sexual sadist Beal, and finding some succor (if not happiness) as the consensual mistress of the gracious French officer Michel. Steve, in turn, gets whipped, branded, shacked, imprisoned, homosexually molested (though not raped), and staked out in the blazing sun for ants to consume, sure all along that Ginny has laughingly betrayed him to this fate. [Lyons and Selinger, 2016.]
Readers and critics interpret the violence in these novels in many ways. I’ll describe five approaches:
One of the functions of fiction is to portray dramatic situations and heightened emotions, and violence is a tool for creating such portrayals. Showing a character suffering harm encourages the reader to pity and sympathize, and showing their endurance and resilience encourages admiration.
By heightening the heroine’s sufferings at the hands of the hero, her victory over him at the end is magnified:
A great deal of our satisfaction in reading these novels comes, I am convinced, from the elements of a revenge fantasy, from our conviction that the woman is bringing the man to his knees and that all the while he is being hateful, he is internally grovelling. [Modleski, 1982.]
The sexual double standard meant that until the sexual revolution of the mid-20th century it was considered acceptable for men, but not for women, to engage in premarital sex, and so rape was used as a fictional device allowing the heroine to have sex without being responsible for it:
Romance heroes from the 1970s and earlier were often actors in rape fantasies and other sexual brutalities because the romance industry thought that women would not accept premarital sex unless the heroine was coerced. [Zidle, 1999.]
The violence is a dramatically heightened portrayal of real historical conditions, carrying an implicit criticism of them:
Brandon victimizes Heather at the start of [The Flame and the Flower], and almost does it again halfway though, because he has internalized what the novel presents as patriarchally warped notions of female sexual coyness and male sexual authority, notions which the novel itself implicitly critiques. […] The novel is not about “making rape romantic,” then, but rather about the utopian hope that romance—including happy, mutual, exuberant sexual love—can still be found in the face of a culture of rape. [Lyons and Selinger, 2016.]
The violence is a symptom and reflection of the patriarchal culture in which it was written:
As a rule, feminism and the blockbuster historical romance novels have been seen as in tension with one another, or on a collision course. Nancy Coffey recalls that the Hearst Building was picketed by feminists because Avon, owned by Hearst, was “publishing such dreck,” work that was, in the protesters' eyes, profoundly damaging to women. “What does it all mean,” Turner muses, a little smarmily, in 1978, “this fantasy of ravishment and degradation which appears to have overtaken the women of the liberated seventies?” [Lyons and Selinger, 2016.]
We see Rogers’ novels (and other bodice rippers) as arguing for a redfinition of rape that supports patriarchal and oppressive attitudes. Rape in these novels is shown not as an act of violence, not as a physical assault with real physical and mental consequences, but as an act of welcomed passion. […] The novels offer women a way of explaning the threats of and acts of verbal and physical violence that are a part of so many male-female interactions, a way that does not identify male violence as unacceptable. [Castagna and Radespiel, 1990].
- Katherine Anne Ackley, ed. (1990). Women and Violence in Literature: An Essay Collection. New York: Garland.
- JoAnn Castagna and Robin L. Radespiel (1990). ‘Making Rape Romantic: A Study of Rosemary Rogers’ “Steve and Ginny” Novels’. In Ackley.
- William A. Gleason and Eric Murphy Selinger, eds. (2016). Romance Fiction and American Culture: Love as the Practice of Freedom?. New York: Routledge.
- Anne K. Kaler, Rosemary E. Johnson-Kurek, eds. (1999). Romantic Conventions. Bowling Green State University Popular Press.
- Sarah Frantz Lyons and Eric Murphy Selinger (2016). ‘Strange Stirrings, Strange Yearnings: The Flame and the Flower, Sweet Savage Love, and the Lost Diversities of Blockbuster Historical Romance’. In Gleason and Selinger.
- Tania Modleski (1982). Loving with a Vengeance: Mass Produced Fantasies for Women. New York: Routledge.
- Candy Tan and Sarah Wendell (2009). Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels. New York: Simon and Schuster.
- Alice K. Turner (1978). ‘The Tempestuous, Tumultuous, Turbulent, Torrid, and Terribly Profitable World Of Paperback Passion’. New York Magazine, February 13, 1978.
- Abby Zidle (1999). ‘From Bodice-Ripper to Baby-Sitter: The New Hero in Mass-Market Romance’. In Kaler and Johnson-Kurek.
In comments, Zebrafish expressed some confusion:
I can hardly imagine any two things further apart than rape and romance, and so in this respect am even more confused as to how such a story could fall in the genre of a romance novel.
Romance is a genre in which (archetypally) the protagonists overcome obstacles on the road to love and marriage; the obstacles being differing social stations; prejudice; parental objections; misunderstandings; prior engagements; and so on. The writers of ‘bodice-rippers’ in the 1970s added rape and violence to this catalogue of obstacles. (They weren't the first to do so; writers like E. M. Hull had done the same 50 years previously, and ultimately the trope goes back to the damsel in distress.)
Every reader has their own dividing line where the violence becomes unacceptable. Janice Radway carried out a sociological study of how readers engaged with romantic fiction, the results being published in 1984 as Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature, and in it she notes that readers categorize books as “good” and “bad” romances:
All of [the study subjects] mentioned Rosemary Rogers’s books as perfect examples of bad romances. Although most confessed that they like her first novel, Sweet Savage Love (1974), all asserted that beginning with Dark Fires (1975), her work had become progressively offensive and pornographic.
But the best way to understand these works would be to read them.