Friday, May 23, 2014

On the Ripping of Bodices, and other Sundry Garments

     Her nerves stretched taut with her toilette complete, and needing some task to occupy her thoughts, she began putting some order to the cabin, which was littered with clothing. His were thrown over the back of a chair, her beige gown in another. The torn chemise was still where he had dropped it after ripping it from her. She picked it up and found it irreparable.
     His hands destroy well, she mused.
         —Kathleen Woodiwiss, The Flame and The Flower (45)

"Bodice-ripper" has a long history of being used as a stand-in for the genre of popular romance in general. Witness, for example, headlines from many of the mainstream news outlets reporting on Rupert Murdoch's purchase of Harlequin earlier this month: "News Corp buys "bodice-ripper" publisher Harlequin." To the romance-literate, however, "bodice-ripper" has a more precise meaning: an epic historical romance, told from the point of view of a young heroine as she gradually wins the older, brutal man's love. Violence, evil villains, bad metaphors for sex, and myriad incidences of what today we would call rape perpetrated on the body of the heroine by the "hero" are the staples of the sub-genre, books written in the mold of Kathleen Woodiwiss's 1972 The Flame and the Flower and Rosemary Rogers' 1974 Sweet Savage Love.

Make sure you don't step on the hem
of that gown, Kristen!
Some suggest that the term "bodice-ripper" refers to the book's covers, in particular, to their penchant for depicting women whose bosoms seem poised to rip free of their bodices if they make one wrong move. But almost all bodice rippers include a scene or scenes of actual bodice-ripping, scenes in which the male protagonist violently tears a garment of the heroine's clothing off of her body prior to forcing himself sexually upon her. It's this trope I'd like to explore in today's post.

A search for "bodice" and "rip" in my e-text version of The Flame and the Flower reveals that it was not actually a bodice, but a chemise, that ended up on the scrap heap after being torn from our heroine Heather's body during her first sexual encounter with the book's eventual hero. Although when you read the actual passage, the violence of the act is rather underplayed: "She felt his hands go up her back and with an easy tug he separated the shift and snatched it from her" (28). Only later, when Heather is cleaning up the room after being assaulted (see above passage), is it made clear that it was not only Heather's virgin body, but also her garment, which was rent by ship's captain Brandon Birmingham.

What's going on with all that garment ripping? I think it's a dual signal to the reader, one that conveys opposing messages that are somehow made compatible through the symbolic power of the act. On the one hand, ripping a woman's clothing off of her body is a clear signal of the hero's lack of control. He is so driven by his passion for the heroine that he cannot stand to wait for any delay, even the minor delay of pushing a few buttons through their proper holes or untying a recalcitrant tie. His passion for the heroine has moved so far beyond social conventions that he must rip any symbol of said conventions from her body. His lack of control points both to the overwhelming nature of his feelings, and to the fact that someone else besides the hero is the one in charge, the one with the power. Perhaps it might be the heroine? If she and she alone can make him act so?

On the other hand, bodice ripping is all about the physical power of the male. The hero is strong enough to hold a woman still, and to tear apart some pretty strong fabrics (except in the case of those flimsy summer Regency gowns): linen, silk, flax, cotton, brocade. In the days before the sewing machine, clothing was made to last; even ripping a garment along its seams likely would have required more than average strength. A man strong enough to rip your bodice from you would likely be stalwart enough to prevent other men from attacking you, too. You might have to put up with his rapes, but at least you would gain protection from the rape of others...

One might think that with "rapetastic" Old Skool romances long out of fashion, few twenty-first century romance novels would include such scenes of bodices, or other pieces of women's clothing, being sacrificed on the altar of a romance hero's ardor. Yet the trope has a surprisingly persistent presence in both historical and contemporary romances.

Just this past week, I read two romances which featured scenes of male garment-rending. But they did so in a way that called into question the masculinist assumptions that underlie the original trope: the assumptions that a man has an unquestionable right to a woman's body, and that ripping off her clothes is a sexy articulation of his dominance, and the heroine's submission to it.

The male lead in Megan Mulry's comic romance If the Shoe Fits, the second book in her Unruly Royals series, is not much like the brutal alpha male of your typical bodice ripper. The second son of a duke, Devon Heyworth has spent most of his life being indulged by a doting mother and a long line of willing women, and rarely has to raise a finger, never mind a violent hand, to get what he wants in or out of bed (of course he's hiding his stellar mathematical brain and a kind heart behind his deceptive playboy exterior). When he falls, and falls hard, for American shoe-designer Sarah James, though, he's not at all prepared for the overwhelming strength of his feelings for her. Or how much like a possessive jerk they'll lead him to act.

Devon pops over to Chicago for a surprise weekend visit, and doesn't object when Sarah tells him that she already has dinner plans for Saturday night. But when spies a handsome young man helping her out of the car after she returns to her apartment, he's overcome with jealousy, jealousy that he knows is ridiculous:

     Why had he been looking out the window in the first place? Was he hovering like a child waiting for her return? What a jerk, he thought. And too late to trot upstairs and pretend he had been watching a movie in her boudoir. He felt  like a fool, a kept man all of a sudden. Not the carefree, fast-car-driving, mindless-pleasure-seeking persona he had spent years manufacturing, that she would be expecting.
     By the time Sarah opened the door to her home and came in a breathless rush toward him, her arms outstretched like a toddler, he had worked himself into a proper snit. Her skin against his face was cold from the biting night air, and the fur cape was monstrously sexy, and he knew he was about to fuck it all to hell.
     But some things couldn't be helped. (148)

When Sarah greets Devon's subsequent accusatory and jealous outburst not with apologetic deference or rational justification, but with the scorn it deserves ("Fuck you"), Devon displays all the characteristics of the bodice-ripping hero in mid-lust: "far too out of control," he "wanted her so keenly and with such an irrational, violent level of possession that he did not even recognize his feelings" (149). Unlike the early bodice rippers, Mulry's book allows the reader inside Devon's head, so we see that Devon is all too aware that his alpha male feelings and behavior are not the signs of a depth of passion that Sarah should and will find gratifying. Devon doesn't feel powerful, or privileged; his out-of-control possessiveness makes him feel "disgusted with himself" (149). Devon's self-awareness simultaneously allows the reader the emotional pleasure of knowing just how out of control his feelings have driven him (Sarah's power over him) and provides the comic kick of the scene—despite his awareness, Devon finds himself acting like a jerk nonetheless.

Sarah's Yves Saint Laurent vintage blouse?
The comedy turns dark, though, when the combination of anger and sexual charge drives Devon to turn to the tried-and-true bodice-ripper method for beating back a man's emotional vulnerability: forcing the woman who has made him feel weak to feel weak herself, by seducing her into having sex with him. He's livid not with the man he saw her with, but with her: "Sarah was to blame for making him this way" (150). Though he struggles to be gentle in the midst of his seduction, the anger inspired by his own vulnerability pushes him into retaliatory violence: "He started to undo the loose fabric bow at the neck of her blouse, then unable to fully undo the knot, he lost control and tore the fragile fabric right down the front of her torso" (150). Only the sight of Sarah's own vulnerability (a single tear), finally shocks Devon out of his self-absorbed, dominating behavior and halts his forced seduction/rape.

The blouse, significantly, was not just an easily replaceable shift, but a piece of clothing that once belonged to Sarah's now dead mother. Devon's rending of the garment, then, is both a physical and emotional attack on Sarah's well-being. Not surprisingly, Devon's act of sexual violence does not win him Sarah's acceptance, but instead is what convinces her to end their relationship: "her anticipatory warmth at returning to a happy, lusty, carefree Devon was a prehistoric, fossilized memory. Regardless of whatever happened tonight, this... this... whatever it had been with Devon... was over as far as Sarah was concerned" (150-51).

This being a romance, Sarah and Devon do eventually get back together, but not until many, many months have passed. And they have to go through the cycle again, although in a less violent manner, before Devon comes to accept both the vulnerability that his love for Sarah opens him to and the mutual give-and-take that a romantic relationship requires if it is to be at all an equitable one. Mulry's exploration of the dark side of a woman's desire for a man to be "overcome" by passion for her argues that unless the violence is divorced from the want, being "love[d] in the most irrational, improbable way imaginable," as Devon proclaims he loves Sarah, will always come with a heavy price tag (307).

Laura Florand's short story, Sun-Kissed, takes a different approach to re-envisioning bodice-ripping, suggesting that's what's good for the gander can be equally good for the goose. Anne Winters, a fifty-three-year-old Martha-Stewart-like domestic/business goddess, and Mack Corey, middle-aged multi-billionaire captain of industry, both are used to being the ones in power. But even their combined power was not enough to keep Anne out of jail when she was charged with insider trading. Unable to make the actual charge stick, prosecutors instead convicted Anne of obstruction of justice, a conviction that the novel suggests is in large part an anti-feminist backlash against Anne's financial success and "fuck you" attitude. As the novel opens, Anne has just finished serving a six-months jail term, and is taking pleasure in reasserting her control, creating the most beautiful wedding for the daughter of her friend and neighbor, Mack.

Mack, a long-time widower, has fantasized about Anne for years; Anne, emotionally protective after a series of miscarriages and a painful divorce, keeps her own sexuality tightly under wraps. The two have long been friends and business confidantes, talking daily walks on the beach by their adjacent Long Island homes every morning whenever they are both in town. Spending six months apart, though, has led Mack to realize just how much the icy Anne has woven herself into his well-being: "I just—I can't—that prison. It still makes me want to rip everything. Rip up the whole world," Mack reveals to his bossy father. And then he thinks to himself, "And I hugged her. And God damn but does she feel good, nestled up against my damn dick like that. Now I can't separate the reality anymore from all those years of fantasy. I don't want to. I want to rip that damn sheet of plastic between us all away" (Loc 785).

But Mack is wary that going on the sexual offensive with Anne might endanger their friendship, something that he's not willing to put at risk. His father shakes up Mack's assumptions, though, when he offers him a different way of looking at the situation: "Well, you say she's your best friend. You've known each other twenty years. And you still don't realize that if you try to get Anne Winters and she doesn't want you to, she'll stop you?" (Loc 737). By not acting on his sexual feelings, the elder Corey points out, Mack is not protecting Anne or himself, but is disrespecting Anne's power and strength. His father's insight helps Mack decide to gradually, but aggressively, attack the icy exterior which Anne has erected in self-defense:

     He'd been eying that gorgeous, queen's castle a long time. Trying to make himself hold off, respect their treaties, keep his ally. But that fundamental greed pushed at him, that need to claim every territory he wanted. About high time he ripped those treaties up and laid siege.
     Well, siege. He was fifty-three years old and he'd been on the other side of that moat a hell of a long time already. Maybe it was time to bring in the cannons. (Loc 909)

For her part, Anne is equal parts wary and wonder-filled at Mack's sudden change in attitude. The two banter and circle, Mack openly declaring his intentions, Anne offering up her usual defenses. Anne's protests, though, are made not out of fear; she's always been disappointed that no other man has been able to match her power, to breach the strength of her emotional walls:

     But she wanted him to win. Behind those walls, she was terrified he would lose. Everyone else always had. Without her even getting a chance to flex her full strength in the battle. Like a wisp of clouds, those other men. They brought up their forces, they pretended to lay siege, and she took a deep breath in preparation for battle—and at its release, they just dissipated. (Loc 1470)

With Anne and Mack, sex is about power, about the pleasures of fighting and winning, of dominating and submitting, the physical tied directly to the emotional:

    Mack knocked her hands aside, grabbed the two panels of her tailored white shirt, and ripped them open.
     Buttons flew. She gasped, her heart pounding in shock and agonized delight as he tore that outermost wall apart and left her naked. (Loc 1479)

Anne is still wearing her bra here. Mack's action has stripped away not her dignity or her power of choice, but the defenses that have protected her from opening herself to vulnerability.

But Anne is not the only one who can choose to be vulnerable, or to take on the role of dominating tyrant. Turnabout, Anne and Mack discover, is more than fair play:

     She considered him for a long moment, enjoying the way she could torment him just by barely twisting her hips. Torment herself. Then, still astride him, she leaned over to her nightstand drawer and pulled out her tiny embroidery scissors. Mack's eyes widened at the sight of them, and he held very still, as if he might be genuinely afraid her instincts for torture were going to come out. As if he felt genuinely caught at the mercy of a dangerous queen.
     Very carefully, she cut through the hem of his T-shirt's neckline. Then she set the scissors back on the nightstand, grabbed either side of that cut, and ripped the panels in half. (Loc 1632)

Both Florand's and Mulry's stories conclude not with the ripping of garments, but the careful opening of gift-wrapped packages, packages that contain gifts made by hand. Bodices—or white tailored shirts, silk blouses, even t-shirts—may be rent during passionate interludes. But it's the weaving of garments back together, or the creation of new ones, that best symbolizes the equitable sharing of power both Mulry's and Florand's couples reach in their HEAs.

What other memorable bodice-ripping scenes do you recall from romance novels you've read? And how does the rending of garments in them reveal the power dynamics between the lovers depicted?

Photo credits:
Yves St. Laurent blouse: Decades Inc.
Windsor castle: KPBS
Embroidery Scissors: Rochelle Mendle Conwell


  1. Fun post, Jackie! Did anyone think the scene in The English Patient when Ralph Fiennes rips Kristin Scott Thomas's dress was a nod to romance cliches? I particularly enjoyed that he ended up sewing it back together so that she could go home. In romances we so rarely see the practical consequences of ripped bodices.

    1. I had forgotten that scene, but yes, I think you're right about the romance trope nod. I would love to read a scene in a historical where a lady gets pissed off at a fellow who ripped her gown--clothing was so expensive, and so labor-intensive to create, I can't imagine many women being too happy at having their clothing damaged beyond repair...