This article, lifted from the Guardian UK, is about women’s romance novels. What follows is a for and against argument. Personally, I have no problem sitting on the fence with this one. In my opinion, both women make valid points. I do give more points to Julie Bindel, only because I’m a firm feminist myself. And although in a couple of my books, the hero was an alpha male, most feature men-types I consider more acceptable for our society and times.
“Mills & Boon: 100 years of heaven or hell?
Mills & Boon enjoys a huge readership, but has attracted furious critics during its 10 decades in business. Daisy Cummins explains why she is proud to write for the company, while Julie Bindel just wishes the books would go away.
Daisy Cummins and Julie Bindel
Wednesday December 5, 2007The Guardian
Love and hate: Modern Mills & Boon books.
A fine romance
Mills & Boon books have long been an easy flogging horse. Many assume they are only read by the hopelessly unfashionable and out of touch, desperate for tales of helpless heroines swept off their feet by dashing, mildly brutish heroes.
In fact, though, the person reading an M&B is far more likely to be a successful, highly intelligent woman in her 20s or 30s. And neither these women nor the heroines they love are waiting for a man to come and rescue them. M&B has moved on and sexed up.
Next year sees the firm celebrate its centenary and high sales figures continue to speak for its success. Two hundred million books sold worldwide per annum; 13m shifted each year in the UK.
As the daughter of a single-parent feminist, I was hard-wired from an early age to balk at the merest whiff of sexism. Yet, after finding a M&B in my Irish Catholic grandmother’s room one summer, I was hooked. I had discovered an exciting world of feisty heroines and hard-muscled heroes. Sexual tension simmered and exploded. And there was always a happy ending. The hero and heroine were equal partners and every conflict was happily resolved, not necessarily in a marriage but with a firm commitment for the future. For me, the child of a revolutionary and somewhat bohemian background, it was a welcome – albeit, at first, slightly guilt-inducing – contrast to the anger at men I had witnessed growing up.
My mother knew I read them and said nothing, giving her tacit permission. She understood the need to balance things out. I now write for M&B myself, and am supremely proud to do so. My last book, The Kouros Marriage Revenge, was about a devastatingly gorgeous Greek. I write under the name Abby Green purely for the thrill of having a pseudonym.
Let’s start with the first old chestnut that’s used against these books: that they are pulp fiction written in purple prose. Well, they have never been presented as contenders for literary prizes and therefore need not offend anyone who would denigrate them on this basis. These books started out as serials, novellas written to appeal to women who would pick them up for an exotic, escapist treat. And, as with any successful business venture, the original formula has stayed largely the same. Man meets woman, they fall in love, there is a conflict and, ultimately, a happy ending. It is the paradigm behind every great literary romantic work.
Detractors believe that these books perpetuate the stereotype of the doormat woman, taken by a boorish hero, crushed in his arms and transformed into a newer, different type of doormat. They suggest that this fiction encourages women to subscribe to a mythical fairytale, in which men are always the saviour. What drivel. The women who populate these books come from as disparate and wide-ranging economic situations as the women who read them. To say they are all mindless romantic illiterates yearning to be saved is lazy ignorance.
I consider myself a feminist. Not perhaps in the sense that my mother would have called herself a feminist. That fight was fought, and necessarily. For me, feminism means being economically independent; able to pursue the career of my choice without being thwarted; free to make decisions concerning my body, or my vote. I have never struggled with sexual discrimination.
Lovers of romantic fiction, of M&B, know our own minds, we know our own expectations of love and romance. We can separate fantasy and reality. We are not stupid. So go forth in public, ladies – and gents, if you like – take your copy of Bought for the Frenchman’s Pleasure or The Italian’s Captive Virgin and read it with a smile on your face, cover held high, proud in the knowledge that you are sticking two fingers up to the begrudgers of romance.
* Daisy Cummins
Fifteen years ago, I read 20 Mills & Boon novels as research for a dissertation on “romantic fiction and the rape myth”. It was the easiest piece of research I have ever done. In every book, there was a scene where the heroine is “broken in”, both emotionally and physically, by the hero. Having fallen for this tall, brooding figure of masculinity, the heroine becomes consumed with capturing him. The hero is behaving in a way that, in real life, causes many women to develop low self-esteem, depression and self-harming behaviour – blowing hot and cold, and treating her like dirt. But all comes right in the end. After the heroine displays extraordinary vulnerability during a crisis, Mr Macho saves the day and shows her he cares.
By this time (you know how uppity women can be), our heroine is so fed up that she does not comply when he grabs her inevitably small frame in his huge arms, and attempts to take her to bed. And so begins the “gender dance” – man chases woman, woman resists, and, finally, woman submits in a blaze of passion.
My loathing of M&B novels has nothing to do with snobbery. I could not care less if the books are trashy, formulaic or pulp fiction – Martina Cole novels, which I love, are also formulaic. But I do care about the type of propaganda perpetuated by M&B. I would go so far as to say it is misogynistic hate speech.
Why do I care so much about books that few take seriously? Are there not more important battles to fight? Challenging the low conviction rate for rape certainly seems more urgent than trashing novels that perpetuate gender stereotypes, but there is no doubt that such novels feed directly into some women’s sense of themselves as lesser beings, as creatures desperate to be dominated.
One argument from M&B apologists is that the heroine has moved with the times. True, she is now more physically active and sexually imaginative. The modern-day character often dares to have sex before marriage, knows what she wants in terms of her career and personal life, and even has a sense of humour.
As a result of the changing heroine, the hero has been required to catch up. But rather than becoming a “new man”, it seems he has become even more masculine and domineering in order to keep the heroine in line. This is how the rape fantasies so integral to the plot have been able to persist.
Take this description of a recent M&B novel, The Desert Sheikh’s Captive Wife: “Tilda was regretting her short-lived romance with Rashad, the Crown Prince of Bakhar. Now, with her impoverished family indebted to him, Rashad was blackmailing her by insisting she pay up … as his concubine! Soon Tilda was the arrogant Sheikh’s captive, ready to be ravished in his far-away desert kingdom.”
Or Bought: One Island, One Bride: “Self-made billionaire Alexander Kosta has come to the island of Lefkis for revenge … He doesn’t count on feisty pint-sized beauty Ellie Mendoras to be the thorn in his side! … There’s a dangerous smile on Alexander’s lips … As far as he’s concerned Ellie’s a little firecracker who needs to be tamed. He’ll seduce her into compliance, then buy her body and soul!!”
Or Virgin Slave, Barbarian King: “Julia Livia Rufa is horrified when barbarians invade Rome and steal everything in sight. But she doesn’t expect to be among the taken! As Wulfric’s woman, she’s ordered to keep house for the uncivilised marauders. Soon, though, Julia realises that she’s more free as a slave than she ever was as a sheltered Roman virgin.”
The first two were published this year, the third comes out in January.
In 1970, one of M&B’s regular writers, Violet Winspear, claimed that her heroes had to be “capable of rape”. Another, Hilary Wilde, said in 1966, “The odd thing is that if I met one of my heroes, I would probably bash him over the head with an empty whisky bottle. It is a type I loathe and detest. I imagine in all women, deep down inside us, is a primitive desire to be arrogantly bullied.” These comments may have been made some time ago, but the tradition seems to continue in the many M&B novels that depict female submission to dominant heroes.
My horror at the genre is not directed towards either the women who write or, indeed, read them. I do not believe in blaming women for our own oppression. Women are the only oppressed group required not only to submit to our oppressors, but to love and sexually desire them at the same time. This is what heterosexual romantic fiction promotes – the sexual submission of women to men. M&B novels are full of patriarchal propaganda.
I can say it no better than the late, great Andrea Dworkin. This classic depiction of romance is simply “rape embellished with meaningful looks”.
*Julie Bindel “