Mills & Boon: Heaven, Hell, or just people Hyperventilating

Thanks to Arethusa, I read this humdinger of an article from the Guardian featuring two writers, Daisy Cummins and Julie Bindel, squaring off from their respective positions on the relative quality and contribution of Mills & Boon novels.

Daisy, who writes them, says that “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.”

Well, yes, sweeping generalizations about all women are not wise. One or more of us will beg to differ – especially those of us who (a) read romance and (b) bristle at the idea that we’re mindless illiterates. It is a lazy generalization that I’ve seen too much of, personally speaking.

Meanwhile, Bindel, who isn’t mad at the readers or the writers of the novels (who then is she so fired up about? The publisher? Mr. Mills and Mr. Boon who thought up the great business venture?) counters that, “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.”

Bindel then delivers the final blow that made me wheeze and roll my eyes 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”.

Oh, please. Can we all just take a deep breath? I’m the first to defend the genre and my deep abiding love of it, but we are talking about romance novels here. Are they a primary factor contributing to the continuation of the subjugation of women? Do women get raped because they read romance? Are they asking for it if their copy of “The Flame and the Flower” peeks out of their handbag? Is Roe v. Wade in the US teetering on the edge of being overturned because someone read “The Boardroom Sheik’s Remodeled Kitchen With a Virgin on the Corian Counter?” Hardly! Sweet weeping Moses in a steaming shit sidecar.

As Candy stated in her review of Dark Lover, the patterns of Othering and depictions of fertility are fascinating and revealing in romance novels, and certainly the genre as a whole is ripe for literature folks to uncover unstudied areas of narrative portrayal. But what does “The Roman Sword Master’s Giant Sword Of Mighty Wang” reveal about the reader and the writer of very alpha-male romantic fiction? Yes, it’s not fiction to my personal tastes, and I do find it hilarious that many writers and readers would really rather not have dinner with the buttnoid alpha bonehead hero they enjoy, but is it the end of the known world for all women that some women enjoy reading that particular storyline? Nice of Brindel to throw that caveat in there that she doesn’t blame the writers or the readers (Thanks!) but is the existence of romance fiction Keeping The Womyn Down?

Please. Women harshing on the freedom of other women to read and wank off to whatever fantasy they want is what’s Keepin’ the Womyn Down.

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  1. 1
    azteclady says:

    Is it just me, or does Bindel contradict herself in this paragraph?

    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.

    She’s not “blaming” women yet they are “the only oppressed group” etc.

    Required by whom? Other women?

  2. 2
    Sarah Frantz says:

    I don’t feel really oppressed by my husband, thanks.  And none of my sexual interactions or desires have anything to do with being oppressed—rather the opposite, thanks.

    AND I can thank romances for a lot of my sexual dominance and self-confidence, because, in complete opposition to Bindel, I happen to think romances are all about teaching patriarchy to treat women as equal. But that’s just me.  What do I know—I’m mindlessly illiterate.

    And Andrea Dworkin—don’t get me started.  As Naomi Wolf once said at a speech I went to, in response to Dworkin-esque condemnations of ALL heterosexual sex as patriarchal oppression, “Most women go home each evening and think the penis is their friend!”  Indeed.

  3. 3
    aurianrose says:

    While I was reading Bindel’s example paragraphs, I kept thinking, “I’d like to read that!”  (Is that sad?)

    I just read a Jane Feather book in which the heroine had been engaging in affairs for some time (while still unmarried!) and chooses quite consciously to have an affair with the hero. 

    Maybe Bindel needs to widen her study selection past the 20 M&B she read 15 years ago.  I think there are so many exciting and interesting things going on in the romance novel world.  She might find it drastically different…

  4. 4
    Sarah Frantz says:

    Yes, aurianrose, absolutely!  And we also know how well the back-copy reflects the feeling and tone of the actual book—Not!

  5. 5
    Christine Merrill says:

    Help!  Help!

    I’m being oppressed!

    Although, apparently, as an M & B novelist, I’m not (technically) the oppressor of others.

    What a relief.

  6. 6
    Cat Marsters says:

    Wow, what great journalistic commitment, to write an article about a genre you haven’t read for 15 years.  I expect on other pages of the Guardian there were articles despairing that there were no shiny sitcoms about New York twentysomethings, or perhaps praising the marriage of Paul and Linda McCartney.  Or…hell, I can’t remember anything else that happened since 1992.  My brain must be fried by too many romance novels.

    (spamfilter: probably21…years since she read a M&B).

  7. 7
    Jessica Andersen says:

    >>Help!  Help!

    I’m being oppressed! < <

    Ow- I just snorted chili.

  8. 8
    Teddy Pig says:

    I don’t buy it. People who quote Andrea Dworkin probably are mega pissed you are reading heterosexual romance.

    So I say in the spirit of Christmas we compromise.
    Everyone read a Gay Romance with a nasty Alpha Hero subjugating a man who deserves it so.

    Let’s give the gift of buttsecks!

  9. 9
    Robin says:

    I read that article yesterday, and was actually kind of frustrated with both pieces.  But, in response to this discussion, a couple of things come to mind:

    1.  I don’t think everything in the genre reduces to fantasy—there are, IMO, social, cultural, and ideological issues that merit discussion.  Or to refine that more carefully, not everything in the genre reduces to fantasy, and even some of those things we might refer to as fantasy (e.g. the savage “Indian” or the lack of Black heroes in mainstream Romance) also have ideological and socio-cultural implications that merit consideration.

    2.  Sweeping generalizations about Romance—good or bad—make me itch.

    3.  Andrea Dworkin has been demonized far, far beyond her own work both by those who claim to love her and by those who claim to hate her.  That makes me itch, too.  Not that her work isn’t problematic at many levels, but there’s also some important stuff in there (not the least of which was her actual physical protest work, some of which, for example, led to changes in how women prisoners were treated during searches). 

    4.  Once again I’m underwhelmed by the defense of the genre in the following terms:  well, no one said it was literature.  Yawn and more itching.

  10. 10
    Lorelie says:

    So I say in the spirit of Christmas we compromise.
    Everyone read a Gay Romance with a nasty Alpha Hero subjugating a man who deserves it so.

    Name the title, Teddy!  That is right up my alley!

    and more itching.

    I’ve got a tube of cortizone cream here, Robin.  Want it? *g*

  11. 11
    --E says:

    I dunno. Certainly I’m not in Bindel’s camp, but I have a very different view of romance novels than people who really enjoy them.

    I’ve read maybe a dozen romance novels just for the sake of reading them, and skim-read perhaps a thousand more (yes, really) in my long career as a text designer.

    I am not the target audience. (I hang around here because I adore smart bitchery.) I like some romance in my fiction, but I don’t like romance as the raison d’etre of a book.

    What I don’t like about Romance novels is that, one way or another, the message is “The best thing a woman can achieve in life is a husband and babies.” Sure, she can be a detective or have wild affairs or run the plantation like no one else, but all of that is secondary to her ultimately finding happiness and fulfillment with her True Wuv and brood of offspring. If the book doesn’t end with that, it’s shelved somewhere else in the bookstore.

    (Yes, there may be exceptions. But the overwhelming majority of category romance novels end with the (m/f) couple married, and children either in existence or in the near future.)

    I’m not knocking the joy that spouse and children bring. But I can’t help but notice there are few books that say to men, “Hey, you need to find a good woman you can treat like a queen, and you will love taking care of your kids, I swear.”

    Heck, where are the books that say, “Lady, thank goodness you never got knocked up, because you never would have found time to colonize Mars if you’d done that”? Or even, “Thank goodness you found a guy who wants to stay home and care for the kids, because the research lab really needs you”?

    What I’m saying in that last paragraph is that “women’s fiction” (oh, how I hate that term!) is overwhelmingly about the joys of domesticity, with little balancing factor. Some days I want to kiss Elizabeth Peters, who gave us a heroine who says, “Sure, being a wife and mother is great, but I really want to go dig about in this tomb. Ramses, stay out of the way.” You go, Amelia Peabody.

    Those of us who worry about social-structure feedback loops fear this genre as a giant propaganda machine. Maybe it’s so darn popular because so many women are glad to get confirmation that it’s okay for them to enjoy domesticity. Or maybe so many women enjoy domesticity because they’ve been told over and over and over again that it’s great and they should want it.

    I think I might feel better about it if Romance weren’t so exclusively marketed to women. Elizabeth Peters’s readership is probably mostly female, but her books are in the mystery section, and no man would feel funny about picking one up. They aren’t ghettoized. Romance, by the nature of its segregation, says “this is what women should be reading. This is what being a woman is.”

    But that again is one of the things I like about SBTB. I love that y’all cover much more than the “traditional” romance novels, and point out that smaller publishers and e-publishers are finding a demand for gay romance, group romance, and erotica. I also like that you discuss the romantic aspects of books that aren’t primarily focused on the romance. You range outside of the ghetto, to the place where books is books, and women are readers first and a gender second.

  12. 12
    Teddy Pig says:

    What’s new? Hmmmmmmm…

    With Caution by J.L. Langley
    From Samhain

    or I recently enjoyed

    Necessary Temptation by A.D. Christopher
    From El Lora’s Cave

  13. 13

    Blah, blah, blah…Barf and give me a great big-ass break.  She needs to get laid worse than I do.  Thrown on the floor and good, proper dirty done hard.  If not, then for god’s sake, stop the whining, go read some Plath, and leave the rest of us alone with our Anais Nin kindred souls.

  14. 14
    Aemelia says:

    It’s so unfortunate for us poor oppressed women that we can not distinguish fantasy/fiction from the real world!  Oh the pain and suffering we cause ourselves by reading a romance novel.

    Yeah right, if my husband or any other man tried to “oppress” me, well, it’s just not going to happen.  I believe that reading my “trashy” romances have actually made me think and act more independently *gasp*.

  15. 15
    Julianna says:

    // You go, Amelia Peabody.//

    Hell yeah. 
    Something I’ve noticed about Mertz-Peters-Michael’s work is that her heroines usually get the guy – but they get other stuff, too.  They get friends.  They get family.  A lot of the time, they get inspired and excited about a new career – which they get for being smart and tough and funny, as well as having a heart of gold.  (I wrote “loving and sweet”, and then deleted it.  They’re mostly loving, but a lot of them have a healthy dose of sarcastic bitch, and I love them).

  16. 16
    Robin says:

    What I’m saying in that last paragraph is that “women’s fiction” (oh, how I hate that term!) is overwhelmingly about the joys of domesticity, with little balancing factor.

    ITA, although I see the domestication in broad terms.  And I still love the Romance genre and find many ways in which IMO it subverts all sorts of gender stereotypes, patriarchal assumptions, and culturally-determined values (including those of domestication itself).  And I also find many ways in which it conforms to some of those things, as well. 

    I’ve got a tube of cortizone cream here, Robin.  Want it? *g*

    Let’s see how the day goes, Lorelie, lol.

    Right now I’m simply trying to understand why it makes me so frustrated when first wave feminist scholars are demonized, even though I don’t personally identify with much (if not most) of their work.  I think it has something to do with the way in which the distortion of their views seems, sadly and ironically, to kind of bolster some of their more radical paranoia about patriarchy.  And I really, really hate that.

  17. 17
    Ginger says:

    Personally one thing I like about my favorite romance authors is that domestic life isn’t always the end goal, and that one way the Right Guy is identified is that he supports the woman’s career and kicks in his share of the housework.

    Nora Roberts’s heroines always seem to have strong, interesting careers that their men totally support, though sure, children are often a part of the picture.  Paranormal romance heroines often don’t end up with babies (and of course, many of them don’t end up married or monogamous, either).

  18. 18
    Poison Ivy says:

    I’ve thought about this one a lot, ever since I had a major Harlequin reading period years ago. Was reading about women of very limited education, worldly power, and even intelligence an insidious way of training me to look for and accept less in my future? The answer was a resounding no. It was frustrating and made me want to do something to improve my own life. Reading about oppressed women (who nevertheless eventually achieved a kind of triumph) did not brainwash me into thinking that being a subservient, victimized person was the road to happiness. I’ve blogged elsewhere about this.

    No, I wouldn’t want the Greek Tycoon or the Beastly Billionaire in my life, and I certainly won’t be making any Baby Bargains with anyone. But that’s the point of fiction, isn’t it? To check out something other than one’s real life? I couldn’t be that thin blonde who conquers him in a million years, either.

    I, too, have worried that people take fiction for gospel. But books are a reflection of our values; they do not determine them. And when heroines are so obviously not us, how can we think that the heroes are for us, either? The worrying is a waste of time. If the reader wants a fairy tale, there must be a prince. And the Billionaire and the Oil Baron are modern princes, powerful, flawed figures who live their lives on a grand scale. And that’s all.

    A stray thought. Romances are a moving target, developing and changing very swiftly. Which is why the criticism seems so often to be about Harlequin, the slow-moving behemoth that makes such an easy target. For cheap shots.

  19. 19
    Teddy Pig says:

    But books are a
    reflection of our values; they do not determine them.

    THIS! It’s blaming the tail for wagging the dog. Even totally missing the fact the tail is actually attached to an elephant.

    Books and Video games and music does not create society. They tend to reflect it’s darker corners though.

  20. 20
    Christine Merrill says:

    If women need to turn to romance to assure them that it’s OK for them to enjoy domesticity, then I say “Go romance.”  Because if that is seriously what they want to do, they deserve some affirmation for it. It’s a hard job.

    But I don’t think you give women enough credit, if you’re implying that romantic brainwashing is the only reason someone would choose family over career.

    I was talking to someone (obviously more domestic than me) who looked at a daddy/baby romance cover and said, “What could be more sexy then a good looking man with a baby?”

    And I was thinking, “A good looking man WITHOUT a baby.  Have you ever met a baby?  Do you know what comes out of them?”  But I also thought, “Whatever floats your boat, honey.” 

    Because even though I’ve got the husband/dog/2 kids lifestyle, she has a totally different idea of a happy ending than I do.  And I read and write romance, all the time.  I just don’t usually read the ones that require a husband and kids.  I like heroines who have jobs, other than reproducing. There are plenty of romances out there for me.

    I’ll admit to writing heroines who are obsessed with husbands and fertility, but the rules for a happy life were different, several hundred years ago.  My heroines get a HEA appropriate for their time.

    But if any of those stories made someone throw over her PhD in astrophysics because I told her she should marry a duke and have some babies?

    Well, sorry.  My bad.  But it’s the 21st century.  You should really work on your self esteem a little, if a couple of paperbacks can make you change the course of your entire life and roll back the clock to 1950, when there were fewer options for women.

    We need to give all waves of feminism credit for the fact that we have much better life choices available than our grandmothers had.

    But I cannot buy the idea that if we read books that we enjoy reading, it is a symbol of our opression by the patriarchy.  How dumb would we have to be as a gender, not to be able to recognize our own personal happiness, when we feel it?  Why do we have to measure it against what other people want us to have?

    Of course, all this time, I’ve been reading these books because of the sex, and letting the housework go to hell. Because I like books with sex.

    I guess the shut-up-and-clean-the-kitchen message has not been getting through to me.

  21. 21
    SamG says:

    -E said:

    “What I don’t like about Romance novels is that, one way or another, the message is “The best thing a woman can achieve in life is a husband and babies.”

    I don’t believe ALL of them say this.  I like my books that have kids and bliss, but I also like the ones where the woman is satisfied with her career. 

    I also believe that being a Mom is one of the very most important/fulfilling/damn frustrating things a woman can do.  Face it, when we die and they’re carving a headstone, they aren’t going to put ‘one hell of an editor’, “One Smart Bitch”, “damn fine lawyer” etc.  They will put Beloved Wife/Mother/Daughter (or other connection).  So, if those are the truly important things then, why shouldn’t they be the important things in our books?

    Sam

  22. 22
    Nora Roberts says:

    Damn it, I was going to say blah, blah, blah, but someone beat me to it.

    So I say: I am oppressed. I am oppressor. I am WOMAN!

    And women are not spineless, idiotic emotional pillows who can’t tell reality from fiction.

    People who use novels that celebrate love, commitment, good sex as a whipping boy to imply otherwise just make me tired.

  23. 23
    Poison Ivy says:

    Actually, I do think that putting “She was a writer” on my tombstone would be very nice indeed. Because it’s saying something distinctive about me.

    As for the beloved mother bit, I’m waiting for my kid to write a tell-all biography excoriating me for my inevitable lacks as same.

    “She was a writer” sounds good.

  24. 24
    Bailey says:

    I’m still giggling over Candy’s ‘magic hoo hoo’ comment of a couple of days ago.

    Frankly, variety is the spice of life. Hearing that the books I enjoy reading and writing are someow subjugating me… I think not.

    Someone brought up the tail wagging the dog syndrome. I agree completely. Doesn’t work for me, either.

    My children play violent video games, but you know what? Not one of them have ever beat the crap out of someone afterwards.

    I’m divorced and remarried, but not because of a romance novel.

    Frankly, I like hetero sex. If only I had a magic hoo hoo!

  25. 25
    Julianna says:

    As for that “primitive desire to be arrogantly bullied” – sure, that might be part of it.  I would argue that some women have it, some don’t; also, that some men have it, some don’t. 

    I see no reason why anyone should have to apologise for feeling that desire, nor should they apologise for reading fiction that gratifies it. 

    After all, fiction is different from reality, as the romance author points out.  What I want in my fantasy life is frequently totally different from what I want in reality.

    //Of course, all this time, I’ve been reading these books because of the sex, and letting the housework go to hell. Because I like books with sex.//

    Yes!

  26. 26
    MplsGirl says:

    I do think the romance genre is intended to be a tool of oppression. The message that happiness (and happily ever after) is found in true love doesn’t do a damn thing to empower women, and seems to me, does quite a lot to distract us from other stuff that could be bringing us a whole lot of happiness and power.

    What I enjoy so much about SBTB is that this group is snarky, irreverant, and doesn’t completely buy into the message the books are delivering. We take from them what we want. At least I’d like to think that’s what’s happening.  We’re subverting the powerful by using the tools of oppression to our own ends, as SB Sarah says, “wank[ing] off to whatever fantasy [we] want.”

  27. 27
    Chrissy says:

    The detractor was too lazy to read up on CURRENT romance norms.  Lazy writers don’t get to speak to me, thanks.

    Do your homework if you want my attention.

  28. 28
    willaful says:

    aurianrose – I am just the same. Whenever I read excerpts, even from the mostgawdawful sounding books, I always want to read them.

    I wonder if I am a total anomaly. I love romances and most of them don’t reflect my actual values in the slightest bit.  My husband is so far from Alpha he proudly proclaims his Epsilon status. I have one kid by choice and many days I wouldn’t mind having fewer. :-  Politically I am about as left as you can get. Very little in romance reflects me or my life and I don’t care, I just love them. So sue me.

  29. 29
    Nora Roberts says:

    ~I do think the romance genre is intended to be a tool of oppression~

    I’ve been writing it for a long time and never intended that. I do believe in the power of love, and that it can bring great happiness—and doesn’t have to subvert other avenues of happiness or empowerment for women (or men).

    I don’t believe that everyone who reads or writes in the genre—and enjoys it—has to feel exactly as I do. Or write or read Romance for the same reasons I do.

    But I can’t agree the message that happiness can be found through love is oppressive—or a distraction.

  30. 30
    Robin says:

    Which is why the criticism seems so often to be about Harlequin, the slow-moving behemoth that makes such an easy target.

    And yet, I’ve read some REALLY provocative Harlequins.  Lately, in fact, I’ve been gravitating toward category books because of the pleasant surprises I’ve found therein.  Just the difference between the latest Jessica Bird category and the J.R. Ward series is almost baffling to me, especially since I found her category so much more progressive.  And I’m STILL trying to figure out what I think about Charlotte Lamb’s vintage Vampire Lover.  Talk about pushing boundaries.

    If women need to turn to romance to assure them that it’s OK for them to enjoy domesticity, then I say “Go romance.” Because if that is seriously what they want to do, they deserve some affirmation for it. It’s a hard job.

    I think we tend to forget that “domestication” isn’t so narrow as to refer to women being SAHMs, but is rather about “taming” (i.e. domesticated animals) or about cultivation, both natural and social.  And I definitely think that Romance is about envisioning an ideal society, with the family (in whatever form that is created within the story) as the social microcosm.  Which goes back to that broader notion of domestication as the bringing of something natural, and perhaps potentially uncontrollable, into society as manageable and productive.  Like the way the indiscriminate passions of the rake become tamed and focused on the one woman with whom he can experience a “better” passion because it’s circumscribed by romantic love and socially sanctioned commitment (via marriage and children).

    Thus you have the stories about the couple who buck what we see as reactionary or regressive social customs, through, say, marrying between classes or races or within genders or marrying for love rather than money.  And you have stories about the woman who longs to have children but can’t and who finally experiences fecundity with her perfect “mate,” as if in blessing of the wisdom of their union and promoting its reproduction (literally and metaphorically) through generations.  And you have the stories about love being a healing force (the traumatized hero or heroine) or a taming force (the reformed rake) or a liberating force (often in terms of the heroine being freed from a dictatorial and/or abusive) family.

    None of these scenarios or any other in Romance is *inherently* good or bad, IMO.  Although they do reflect (and IMO sometimes validate) specific cultural values, some of which change over time.  Mostly, I think the genre is trying to work out a whole bunch of stuff on its way to imagining the “perfect” society, and that what binds the books ideologically into a genre is that the foundation of that idealized social structure is Love, even though different books provide various takes on the particulars of what the ideal looks like, whether it’s m/f + or – children, m/m + or – children, f/f + or – children, m/m/f, m/f/f/, etc.

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