It wasn’t until the Sexual Revolution had swept through youth culture that romance novels got explicit about sexuality

Mental health is central to the wholesome romance’s fantasy of safety, as manifested in relationships built on emotional intimacy

The so-called bodice ripper was born in 1972, with Kathleen E. Woodiwiss’ The Flame and the Flower-which follows an 18th-century maiden who falls for the ship captain who kidnaps and ravages her. By the Reagan ’80s and the Clinton ’90s, as economic prosperity helped cloister Middle America from the tragic fallout of epidemics like AIDS and crack, erotic thrillers from Body Heat to Cruising needled the collective subconscious about infidelity, queerness, female empowerment. The dominant romance franchises of the early 21st century, Twilight and Fifty Shades, put regular girls at the mercy of powerful men who hurt them, consensually or otherwise.

Erica Jong’s feminist sex romp Fear of Flying and Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (whose muddled notions of consent were mirrored by Bertolucci and star Marlon Brando’s alleged behavior toward the female lead, e time, Deep Throat took porn movies mainstream

While Twilight traced its roots to the brooding romances of the Bronte sisters, wholesome romance has more morsian irlantilainen in common with their predecessor Jane Austen’s light, witty novels of smart women and the difficult men who learn to love them. Which might explain why Shondaland’s Regency romance Bridgerton, based on e a phenomenon when it debuted on Netflix over the lonely pandemic holidays of 2020-and why writer-star Joel Kim Booster used Pride and Prejudice as a guide for his gay rom-com Fire Island, which made a splash on Hulu in 2022.

More than anything, though, this wholesome-romance moment reminds me of the vogue for screwball comedies in the 1930s. With the Great Depression raging, Americans scrounged pennies to watch beautiful people flirt. The sequins and nightclubs and Deco roadsters represented a lifestyle that suddenly no longer seemed attainable to the salaried masses.

The characters in Netflix’s breathless adaptation of Heartstopper are teenagers, but when it comes to emotional intelligence, they are wise beyond their years. At the center of the show’s whirlwind of LGBTQ first love are the openly gay Charlie (Joe Locke) and his crush turned boyfriend Nick (Kit Connor), a rugby star who spends much of the new season slowly coming out. One night, Nick apologizes for failing to tell his friends he’s bisexual at a party when he’d promised Charlie he would do so. Charlie’s response is remarkably mature. “I think there’s this idea that when you’re not straight, you have to tell all your friends and family immediately-like you owe it to them. But you don’t,” he says. “I want you to come out when and how you want to. And if that takes a long time, that’s completely OK.”

It sounds like the kind of thing a person who had been through therapy would say. But this sort of talk is a lingua franca for the sensitive teens and young adults who populate wholesome romances. Sometimes they are literally in therapy. More often, they drop pop-psychology buzzwords like processing-a term that accurately describes the frequent heart-to-hearts in which the lovers share the experiences that made them who they are.

Like Charlie, who once faced bullying after being outed, many of the protagonists in this otherwise cheery subgenre have trauma in their past. This is where these stories overlap with Hoover’s wildly popular, darker romances. In her biggest hit, It Ends With Us, flower-shop owner Lily meets irresistible lothario Ryle hours after her abusive father’s funeral. But when Ryle becomes violent, she finds the courage to leave. Instead of eroticizing abuse, as early bodice rippers did, Hoover’s novel (soon to be a movie starring Blake Lively and Justin Baldoni) is built around the dream of breaking a destructive cycle, even if its compassionate portrait of Ryle can come worryingly close to justifying his behavior.