6 Disturbing Tropes in Old Romance Novels

stacks and rack of novels in a used bookstore
This is the sort of store where you find these books that and free online – most are no longer in print and weren’t reprinted.

I’ve been reading a lot in the past year (See: Stress Relief), and since I read all of the more recent books from my standard authors, I started looking up some of their older works. Not historic romance, just romances written in the 70s and 80s. And I noticed some scary patterns across the genre – enough to recognize some disturbing tropes that I am glad are less common today.

6 Disturbing Tropes Old Romance Novels Use

If you can’t guess these tropes, just let me warn you that they may be triggering for some. To give you a hint, all but one of these trends are actions taken by the male protagonist toward or against the female protagonist.

1. Calling the Women They “Love” Idiots

It’s pretty common for romance novels to have a scene where the two protagonists reveal their love for each other for the first time (It’s either that, or one says it, the other can’t yet, and angst ensues). In these older novels, almost every time the woman finally says, “I love you,” the guy confesses his love by calling her an idiot for not already knowing that he loves her.

Never mind that he’s never said it, and his behavior generally emphasizes lust over love. She was supposed to know anyway.

The most common phrase was, “You little idiot,” used as if it were an endearment. And usually followed by some statement about how she should’ve known he loved her all along. As if that kind of condescension is romantic (it isn’t – at all).

2. Shaking Women

Often in the same big reveal scene as the “You little idiot” trope, at some point, the man grabs the woman and shakes her to express his displeasure and frustration.

While reacting violently to frustration and anger may be understandable (humans do it all the time), it’s not a good thing, and having so many “heroes” react that way implies that it’s a normal or justified reaction. Um… no. Men shouldn’t go around losing control and shaking people all the time. Or even regularly. Heck, occasionally is still questionable behavior.

3. Threatening to Beat Women

Yes, almost all the old protagonists threaten to beat the woman they claim to love in order to keep them from “running wild” or “getting into trouble” by ignoring the man’s advice (See: dictates). That is very much not ok. Some of the men even go so far as to spank the women in order to assert dominance or somehow punish them for disobeying (we’re not talking kinks involving safe words).

That’s abuse. In fact, threatening violence like that is a kind of abuse. Threatening someone to get them to do what you say or modify their behavior to please you is not healthy.

Reading about people acting like that behavior is normal or romantic is a big irritation and turn-off. The kind of thing that will keep me from re-reading, recommending, or even finishing books (and has with many of these – such as the ones that go to this extreme).

4. Tricking or Forcing Women to Spend Time with Them

If the woman the man wants refuses his invitation for a date or affair, the man takes unethical and dishonest action to change her mind. Including but not limited to…

  • Lying to her,
  • Following her home / on vacation / etc.,
  • Threatening her job or a family member’s job if she doesn’t go on a date,
  • Giving job assignments to force her into his presence,
  • Breaking into her house or bedroom,
  • Kidnapping (physically carrying her off),

And more. It’s actually pretty twisted stuff looking at it from today’s perspective, and it’s a plot point in most of the books. Like women are always wrong about their feelings for men (another hard no).

5. Sexual Assault & Rape (AKA Not Stopping When Women Say, “No”)

This is in all of them to some degree. The men kiss women and touch them after being told, asked, or pleaded to stop. And since they often don’t stop at all, that means the men rape the women they supposedly love.

And these are a romance novels! The leading male is supposed to be some sort of romantic hero, and here he is raping the woman who’s supposed to be part of his happily ever after. WTF?!

And you know the most disturbing part? The most disturbing part is what happens afterward.

6. Women Falling for Men Who Abuse Them

Yes, you read that right. The heroine still falls in love with the man who raped her. In fact, it’s treated as if it wasn’t rape even though she clearly tried to get him to stop and often even physically fought against him. Then, because she wanted him so much, she forgives him and loves him.


Maybe she was falling for him before, but being treated like that? That’s not something you brush aside and forgive as if it was consensual. That’s not something you romanticize as “masterful.”

And seeing it portrayed that way was a very vivid mental slap. Yes, people do wind up in twisted and unhealthy relationships, but that’s not something to treat as a romantic story or a happily ever after. It’s not what I want or expect from a romance novel, and I hope I’m not alone in that.

The Resulting Realization & Questions

These books were written around 40 years ago when the authors in question were just getting started. Each of these authors has dozens of books written based on these tropes, and those same authors are now some of the most famous romance novelists in the business.

Which means that these books were popular. Popular enough for these authors to launch careers with them. Which means that women read them and wanted more like them.

Isn’t that terrifying?

That implies that a whole generation of women readers were being told again and again that this kind of abuse is romantic, and they agreed enough to keep reading them. I’m not saying that they would’ve said it was fine if someone put it into words and asked them (“Is rape romantic?”), but the books weren’t considered unusual or offensive. In fact, it gives the impression that these ideas were so common that they probably weren’t even questioned.

Then, at some point, the authors dropped these tropes because these are definitely not common in their work today. It makes you wonder why and when. Did the authors become more aware of rape and what today is called “rape culture”? Did romance novel tropes begin to change as a whole, or did the authors consciously decide to change them?

It makes me wonder if romance novels reflect cultures, influence them, or both?

2 thoughts on “6 Disturbing Tropes in Old Romance Novels

  1. I’m a big fan of James Bond (the movies) but it’s hard to watch any of the old ones for these very reasons. I think the writers called it “power kissing” where Bond is getting all rapey but it’s okay because then the women like it after the fact.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So true! A comedian mentioned James Bond in something I watched recently, and I wondered if I’d be able to watch the ones I grew up seeing today without getting mad. I’ve run into it with other old movies – there’s almost always that initial struggle with the kiss, and then “she starts to like it.” It really pulls me out of the story and makes it harder to enjoy the movie as a whole!


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