More to Mills and Boon than this

Guilty Pleasures, screening in London tomorrow as part of the Birds Eye View film festival, is a documentary about the all-conquering, international romance publishing colossus Mills and Boon.

Directed by Julie Moggan, who will be participating in a question and answer session after tomorrow’s showing, it follows the lives of three women, one in the UK, one in India and one in Japan, as they delight in their love of the novels; reading excerpts of their favourites in voiceover as we see revealing glimpses of their lives and the men in their lives.

dancingguiltyp.jpgOne woman is in the process of reuniting with a hapless ex, one was saved from a violent relationship by a tool-belt obsessed, self-proclaimed ‘man’s man’ and finally, our Japanese heroine used ballroom dancing – inspired by her love of regency romances – to try to enliven a lacklustre relationship.

The choice of these very different women, united under one banner – their love of Mills and Boon novels – is inspired and charming.

Mills and Boon the brand feels parochial, even with its wild-eyed internationalism embodied by a focus on Greek billionaires and ‘lusty Arabs’. Here we see a common passion is shared by women across the globe, in the form of a common love of books, fantasy and escapism.

But we begin to realise that their realities are far from the Mills and Boon fantasies. Is their love of Mills and Boon clouding their eyes, not so much promising a fantasy that real men can’t live up to, but making them see drama and romance in their lives when it isn’t really there?

It’s an interesting point, but the biggest problem with Guilty Pleasures’ case against Mills and Boon is the way it chooses to represent Mills and Boon authors with just one writer, and one who is male. This is an odd choice – and, quite obviously, not the norm. Roger Sanderson, who writes as Gill Sanderson, features in pretty much every documentary about Mills and Boon because of his novelty value.

Modern romance novels aren’t perfect, but they are no longer just, as Elmore Leonard scathingly put it, ‘rape and adverbs’

A Mills and Boon-writing man is an interesting oddity, but it seems strange to restrict the depiction of romance authors to just one and such an anomalous one (especially when the readers featured are so diverse). This lone male author, when paired with the other man in the documentary – the strange, obsessive Fabio-lite who features on the novel’s covers – gives the impression of a Cyrano-de-Bergerac-esque double-act, hoodwinking women with unrealistic ideas about men: that they could look like an Adonis and speak beautiful words authored by an entirely different guy.

guiltyp.jpgBut this isn’t what Mills and Boon heroes are, in the main. They are female fantasy versions of men, written by women for women. And the cover models are a very small part of the, ahem, package.

This documentary has a pleasingly old fashioned feel, no imposed storylines or staged sequences, but its view of its subject matter seems stuck in the past too. Modern romance novels aren’t perfect, but they are no longer just, as Elmore Leonard scathingly put it, “rape and adverbs”.

There are many more ways to look at them and the influence they have on women’s lives than the idea that they are a pacifier. They are certainly not a pacifier created by men. The fact that they are almost entirely written (and commissioned and edited and marketed) by women is a vital part of any examination of them.

Guilty Pleasures is an interesting documentary, the juxtaposition of the three female reader’s lives is fascinating. The misstep comes with a dated and one-note view of the novels themselves. I would love to see something about Mills and Boon that treated this aspect of women’s culture and the women who enjoy it, share it, create it and build communities around it with a bit more respect.

Mathilda Gregory is an author and journalist specialising in feminist reaction to pop culture. She is also writing a sitcom. Follow her on twitter @mathildia