Romance novels have changed since I used to read them. (Yes, I am here publically admitting that I did once read what I called “tempestuous” novels because the cover blurbs always started, “The tempestuous saga of an innocent young woman and the pirate she couldn’t live without.” Hey, I was 16. But I digress.)
The covers of the novels, which were also called “bodice-rippers” back then, usually featured a picture of a man and a woman, with him ripping open her bodice (duh). The man always looked like Fabio (or a fair imitation), with lovely flowing locks, a square chin, an intent gaze, and an irresistible (apparently) sneer. The woman was slim, beautiful, and wearing a dress with a bodice (again, duh). She could be soft and yielding or, more often, fiery and tempestuous. If you knew about such things, you could sometimes guess the era in which the tempest played out by the details of the clothing, but usually not. An open, puffy-sleeved shirt and a ripped bodice don’t really convey that much information.
The point is, the cover art generally featured two figures, a man and a woman, with some indication of conflict and/or passion between them.
I’ve noticed that these days, romance novels tend to have cover art that features a man only.
And not just any sort of man. He will have the physique of a bodybuilder, a hairless chest (I wrote about that once: http://wp.me/p4e9wS-9P), no shirt (or one that exposes the entire torso), tight jeans, and not much else. He could be a bodybuilder or a cowboy or a firefighter or a musician or (I suppose) a beach bum, or even – remotely possibly – a business tycoon on his day off.
But he has no face.
Where a face should be, there is a shadow, or a hat. Or the picture is simply cropped so that the cover doesn’t involve even a hint of a face.
What does this say about women and the men they are attracted to?
In sexual politics, there is a thing called “the male gaze.” It refers to how television and movies and advertising and just about everything else present females that will be pleasing to a man who is looking at them. How women react to the images doesn’t matter. (This can also be called “heteronormative,” but you didn’t come here for a sociology lesson.) The “male gaze” reinforces the idea that stereotypical males value women only for what’s between their neck and their navel, as the saying goes. (Or their neck and their knees, to be more accurate.)
Now, on the covers of romance novels, we have images that are meant to appeal to the female gaze. And what do they show? Besides torsos, I mean?
They show that publishers – or at least their marketing departments – are trying to appeal to the “female gaze.” And they think that gaze rests on the same areas as men’s gazes. To appeal to the romance reader, they think, men should be manscaped and body-sculpted, physical as all get-out. And anonymous.
It may be true that some women do long for anonymous sex these days and that romance novels increasingly sell sex. And it may be that the female gaze is as superficial and body-conscious as the male gaze. Maybe that’s the way it is for women who read romance novels. Maybe the publishers know their audience.
As for me, the things I look for in a man are all above the neck – bright, witty, creative men with facial hair. (In fact, three of those qualities are not just above the neck, but above the eyebrows. And I’ll disregard a guy’s lack of facial hair if the other three qualities are strong.)
That’s what’s romantic as far as I’m concerned. And sexy. But I suppose it doesn’t sell books.
2 thoughts on “Romancing the Body”
Excellent post! I too read “bodice-rippers” when a teen. I have not looked at romance novels much since but I think you are right about the cover “art”. Maybe women have changed to become more visual creatures like men when it comes to attraction, but somehow I doubt it. I always found when I really liked a man’s insides, their outsides became more attractive to me as well. But it was always the insides first.
I haven’t read a romance novel in ages…I picked one up on vacation a few years ago and found it hilarious because while it made for entertaining reading, there was a lot of textbook dysfunction (codependency) and ridiculous “Disney” themes (my prince will rescue me, I will change him with my love).
I was actually thinking that one day I could use all my bad dating experiences for fodder to write romance novels. I knew someone that quit corporate America to be a romance novel author. I think it would be fun (if I could figure out how to write a novel!)