Reader M.W. recently sent me a little box, packed to the brim with slim Signet and Harlequin volumes. I’d never read category romance before. With a hand-picked selection, though, how could I resist? I’ve been gobbling them up at a breakneck speed — I’ve read five of them since March 19th, in between reading regular mass-market romances and writing my dissertation — and absolutely loving the indulgence.
Category romances distill the appeal of the romance novel. Instead of attempting to appeal to a broad crowd through nuanced interpersonal interactions, category romances go straight for the prize. A category romance is likely to give you a heroine who is soundly abused by her family and friends, but who maintains a flabbergasting meekness in the face of it. One of the romances I recently read, The Youngest Dowager, had a heroine who believed that assault was normal during sex. Yes! I know! AMAZING!
Since these books are thin, I can read them even more quickly than I do regular romances. It goes even faster, because the books rely on well-trodden tropes of historical romance. The minute a “gypsy” shows up, I know there’s going to be some brooding, or at the very least some Gypsy Superpowers. I can fly right over the words, secure in the knowledge that everything is as it always is.
It’s that last phrase, thought idly to myself mid-read, that made me realize just how much these books rely on stereotypes to support their narrative. The maids are plucky and friendly and Irish, for example, because the heroine needs her hair fixed and a confidant who won’t blab to the ton. It reminded me of the point I’ve made to my students time and again: stereotypes serve a narrative purpose in our lives. One of the benefits of reading these romances is that it makes visible to me the stereotypes I rely on or am encouraged to rely on as a white middle-class woman. I may not be the ideal reader of these romances, after all, but I belong to the intended group.
So, because I am categorically incapable of taking things seriously, I made bingo cards featuring the tropes of historical romances. Before you look at my frivolous offerings, though, check out these bingo cards based on conversations about marginalized groups:
- Ableism bingo: general disability, invisible disability.
- Racism bingo: the classic racism bingo card.
- Related to the above, how to suppress discussions of racism.
- Sexism bingo: gender bias bingo.
- Classism bingo: doesn’t exist yet, as far as I can tell, but there’s a discussion here of what said card would look like.
- Extensive collection of links to these kinds of bingo cards at A Second Thought.
Now, without further ado, Historical Romance Bingo cards:
She rides astride: an excellent horsewoman, who even rides like a man!
Surprise!title!: out of nowhere, our hero inherits an earldom.
“It’s never been like that before!”: no man has ever performed cunnilingus on me before. Let’s get married.
Gowns upon gowns: endless gown descriptions. Usually accompanies a makeover.
“All the servants love her”: and she’s made of sparkle powder and derring-do.
Kinky menace: her dead gay husband was into flogging chickens with a cat. THE FIEND.
Hermit hero: he lives in a cave, away from the ravening masses, until our heroine — and her life-saving ladybits — show him how to live again.
Sickly friend: she’s a cripple, but at least she’s plucky!
Savages!: a non-white person or people who torture our hero.
Lawn: the female counterpart of superfine.
Lady Smartypants: the heroine is both pretty, abused by her family, and secretly a master chemist and Latin scholar.
Just her chemise: you know how, when you get rained on, you strip down to just your fine lawn chemise? Yeah, like that.
Note that there is no square for black people. That is because black people don’t exist. LA LA LA CAN’T HEAR YOU.