Literary experts call romance fiction “a genre where women win” and bully romances are no different. Contrary to the negative schoolyard connotation, the sub-genre has gained increasing popularity over the last few years.
Bully is aimed at a large range of women between about 18 and 45 and is often accompanied by a trigger and 18 plus warning. The added drama creates extreme angst, tension and suspense.
Many bully books are on Kindle Unlimited and make for intriguing self-iso reads, while your social life is on the back-burner.
If you’re a stranger to this niche genre, then keep an open mind and consider the phrase in its most literal interpretation: ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’.
What the hell is bully romance?
These stories usually take place in an academic setting and have one or more antagonistic heroes.
Bully is often combined with reverse harem, a genre in which the heroine has several love interests and eventually ends up in a polyamorous relationship.
The hero generally hates everyone and everything (including the heroine at first) and is normally quite jaded.
The heroine is often a new addition to the school and is either a gutsy, defiant character with an ‘I-don’t-give-a-shit’ attitude. Or a more subdued, quiet personality who has to find the inner strength to stand up for themselves.
Delightfully, the heroine will often then pursue their revenge in a VERY satisfying way before she joins sides with her bully/bullies.
The group will usually face an outside adversary while the heroine becomes romantically involved with one or all of them.
Why on God’s green Earth would someone read that?
Well Karen, we asked some of the fans what traits suck them in to find out.
Samantha Ubaldo, 30, said she’s more character driven in stories than plot, and in bully romances there’s a lot of room for that development.
Ubaldo, a legal secretary and victim advocate, said, “You’d think I wouldn’t like to see bullying because I was always dealing with family violence, that’s why I need to see that progression to where it’s not an abusive relationship.”
Many readers mentioned the lack of ‘love at first sight’ or ‘soulmate’ tropes were a pull, and several recounted the intense emotions felt in bully.
Jennifer Allenback, 25, shared that she was bullied in high school and says reading this genre helped her be at peace with her bullies.
“A majority of the bullies in the books, the root of the cause was normally centred in home family environment, or even to fit in,” she said.
Professor Lindsay Herron, who teaches English at Gwangju National University in South Korea said the themes of bully romance revolve around strength, courage, and survival in the face of adversity.
So unsurprisingly, most fans required a strong heroine that didn’t take any bullshit.
Herron said, “We love to cheer for an underdog who overcomes the odds; such characters help us imagine we, too, can overcome whatever life throws at us.”
Power exchanges and defeating the patriarchy
According to Dr Jodi McAlister, lecturer in writing, literature and culture at Deakin University, the central pleasure in bully romance is about power, but not in the way you think.
McAlister described the sub-genre’s central idea as more the bully falling in love with the bullied character rather than the bullied one falling in love with their bully.
“[Women in romance novels] exist in a patriarchal structure where men have all the power but because these men fall in love with them, the women symbolically win the narrative,” she said.
It’s important to note that after the initial bullying there’s an integral second step to the fantasy, the power is subjugated to the one that was bullied. The bully character then has to win over the heroine, which as you could imagine can include some grovelling.
McAlister said, “I think [readers] are kind of interested in watching them squirm and seeing that power subjugated to the one that was bullied.”
She added that flipping the power dynamic in a relationship appears to be the central pleasure in the genre. This is the moment when the character with no power suddenly possesses all the power over the bully.
“There’s clearly substantial pleasures to be had in the genre otherwise there wouldn’t be a readership,” she said.
Jump down the rabbit hole of romance sub-genres
Silke Jahn, 40, founder of Romance.io, a site that allows users to filter particular tropes in romance down to the last detail explains how genres can evolve quickly.
In a typical display of supply and demand, Jahn said often if one particular trope or book is successful then more authors will write into the niche to reach a larger audience.
“If you look into the genesis of these tropes then they’re always evolving and so it’s something we have to be mindful of because meaning can slightly shift,” she said.
For example, bully romance used to fall under the dark romance umbrella, but the darker sub-genre has further evolved to encompass stories with dub-con (dubious consent) and even non-con (non-consent).
Jahn said she noticed both bully and reverse harem romances were becoming more popular.
“I do believe [the draw] is the cathartic element of the confrontation and then the hero having to do penance and having to win her back.”
Feminism and relationships with assholes
English Professor Lindsay Herron said some second-wave feminists like Janice Radway have argued that abusive heroes in romance novels encourage women to interpret abuse in their own relationships as stemming from (misguided) love.
Herron disagrees: “There’s a separation between fiction and reality, between what we enjoy experiencing vicariously, in fiction, and what we’re willing to accept in real life.”
“One can admire the heroine’s strength and force of will in the face of bullying without necessarily being willing to endure bullying or abuse in real life, just as people can play first-person shooter games and still be horrified by real-life school shootings.”
Silke Jahn, said it’s a question of how you view romance books.
“Do you view it as a: ‘they actually depict ideal relationships’ and hence you should model your own relationship after it, or do you view them as fantasies and say ‘it’s a great way to explore fantasies you might have’, and I do believe it’s the second one,” she said.
Jahn added that labelling something as a ‘high school bully romance’ makes it clear that what you’re going to read is abnormal behaviour.
It’s called out before you even open the book as something problematic, which allows the genre to deal with the problems in their fantasy relationships in a more conscious way.
“In a way, it’s less problematic than seeing normalised sexist relationships in other media such as films, where you have a million examples of really problematic behaviour but that’s just being represented as normal or standard,” Jahn said.
Have you read any bully romances lately? Take a look at the Goodreads shelf and let us know what you think in the comments.