Under the title "Here we go again ...." Natasha Oakley offers a warning to Mills & Boon readers. We're going to have to be prepared for extreme irritation next year:
As I've said here before, with Mills & Boon's centenary year just around the corner I'm braced for criticism as the media spotlight shines on us. What's so particularly annoying is that the negative swipes usually comes from people who haven't read a M&B for years, if ever.Yesterday's criticism came from Julie Bindel, writing in the Guardian:
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. [...] 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 [...]. 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. [...] 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.As might be expected, I have a few objections to make to this.
I can say it no better than the late, great Andrea Dworkin. This classic depiction of romance is simply "rape embellished with meaningful looks".
Bindel's sample is now out of date and was always rather small. Mills & Boon romances are varied, and nowadays there are a large number of different lines (Historical, Medical, Modern, Romance, etc), each with its own guidelines. Within each line there is also variation. It is certainly true that, as Bindel says, there have been some M&B romances which contained at least one "scene where the heroine is 'broken in', both emotionally and physically, by the hero." I'm planning on posting about a novel written by Rosalind Brett in 1951 in which, although the hero is very restrained physically (he barely kisses the heroine till the final pages), he "breaks" her emotionally. I've also come across some older M&B romances which include scenes of date rape. Sandra Field's Love in a Mist is from 1988 and in it, although the hero has promised the heroine that he "won't as much as lay a finger on you" (74), when she believes him and shares a bed with him, he makes a move on her. At first she doesn't object to his caresses but then
She felt helpless and horribly vulnerable, and the delicious haze of sensuality had retreated.Luke apologises and reveals that his cynicism is due to having been married and found that his wife had been unfaithful: "For the first time in my life I really understood how murders get committed ... there'd have been a certain irony in that, wouldn't there? Parole Officer Receives Life Sentence. Anyway I didn't commit murder" (104) but the horrible irony is still there, because the parole officer has now committed a rape and the reason for it is that "in the darkness it was as though you were Althea [...] I'd been so angry with her, Sally. Angry and hurt and frustrated. And I took it out on you. [...] I had no idea that I was going to. I lost control - and you're the one who suffered for it" (102). Nonetheless, despite his remorse,
She had spent a lot of time with Luke the last few days and would have said she was beginning to know him. But she had not learned enough, she thought with a sickening lurch of fear as his thighs forced hers apart. She should have heeded the bitterness and cynicism she had seen him display, for they had not been fleeting emotions [...] Luke was making love without tenderness or patience. She shoved at his chest with the palms of her hands, trying to wriggle from under him, and gasped furiously, 'Luke, don't -' [...]
When he entered her, Sally felt again that lick of fire. But the fire was vanquished by a flood of other emotions: resistance and fear and guilt, so that while her body was instinctively in rhythm with his, her spirit was drowning in a vast and terrible loneliness. (91-92)
Last night was a catharsis [...] I took out on you all my anger against the woman who had made a mockery of my marriage bed. When I first woke up this morning I felt cleansed. Lighter. Free. As though a burden I'd been carrying for a year had been lifted from me. And then, of course, I remembered you. For me it might have been catharsis. But for you - I'd used you. I'd been rough and insensitive, totally selfish. (104)Neither Luke nor Sally call what happened "rape" even though it was non-consensual. Yet
Date rape is when someone you know socially (but not family) makes you have sex when you don’t want to. It could be someone you meet at a party, or someone you love and trust, like your boyfriend. They might use physical and verbal threats, emotional blackmail, or alcohol and drugs to force or trick you into having sex. And it’s not just sexual intercourse − it can be oral sex or some other kind of sex. You may even agree to have sex with someone and then decide that you want to stop, but they force you to keep going. (Government of New South Wales)And, to compound an already repellent situation, this is Luke's way of making amends:
'There is one way I can apologise,' he said in his deep voice. 'I know you're afraid of making love even though I don't know why. But we could go back to the hotel and make love again - and this time I swear would be different. For both of us.' (105)Yes, he really does admit that he acted as he did despite the fact that he knew she was "afraid of" sex. Yes, he really does refer to what happens as "making love" not rape. And yes, he really does think he's doing her a favour by offering to have sex with her again. Sally accepts and discovers that, contrary to what she learned from her ex-husband, she's not "no good in bed" (106). There are no further consequences of the rape.
Yet one cannot assume that Field's Love in a Mist is representative of all other M&B romances published in the same period:
Susan Napier is one of the mid-1980s group of authors who never used violent sex in her novels, building on the earlier non-violent, though sexual, romances that were being published at the same time that sexually violent Mills & Boon romances were being issued. These non-violent Mills & Boon novels were written by such popular authors as Charlotte Lamb, Jane Donnelly, Carole Mortimer, Essie Summers, Betty Neels, Daphne Clair, Anne Weale and Anne Mather whose An All-consuming Passion (1986), has a hero who does not satisfy the heroine in their first sexual encounter because he ejaculates prematurely. (Dixon 148)In addition
As Daphne Clair said [...], pointing out the historical specificity of this type of Mills & Boon [i.e. ones where the heroes are sexually violent towards the heroines]: "Since abusive men in real life have become exposed, writers have been more careful - what we and most readers thought of as fantasy in a more innocent era we now know is all too common in real life and we don't wish to encourage any notion that it is normal". (Dixon 193)Awareness of the prevalence of date rape is now far greater than it was in the past, and while feminist academics and others working in the area were aware of it as a phenomenon earlier, knowledge about these issues took longer to filter through to the general public:
Acquaintance rape, which is also referred to as "date rape" and "hidden rape," has been increasingly recognized as a real and relatively common problem within society. Much of the attention that has been focused on this issue has emerged as part of the growing willingness to acknowledge and address issues associated with domestic violence and the rights of women in general in the past three decades. Although the early and mid 1970's saw the emergence of education and mobilization to combat rape, it was not until the early 1980's that acquaintance rape began to assume a more distinct form in the public consciousness. The scholarly research done by psychologist Mary Koss and her colleagues is widely recognized as the primary impetus for raising awareness to a new level.As Clair's comments reveal, the romance genre did gradually change in response to this increased knowledge about rape, and, as mentioned previously, the romances which included scenes of date rape and/or sexual aggression were not the only ones being published.
The publication of Koss' findings in the popular Ms. magazine in 1985 informed millions of the scope and severity of the problem. By debunking the belief that unwanted sexual advances and intercourse were not rape if they occurred with an acquaintance or while on a date, Koss compelled women to reexamine their own experiences. Many women were thus able to reframe what had happened to them as acquaintance rape and became better able to legitimize their perceptions that they were indeed victims of a crime. (Curtis)
The texts Bindel read were, I think one can assume, from roughly 1992 since she says that she read them fifteen years ago, though perhaps she also read some from the 1980s, since she may have read some older romances as well as ones published at the time she did her research. I'd like to give a short list of romances published around 1992 which most certainly do not match the description given by Bindel. I've taken two from the historical line and included a Silhouette romance (published by Harlequin Mills & Boon) because this further illustrates the variety within M&B's output.
- In Jo Ann Algermissen's Would You Marry Me Anyway? (1991) the hero is a carpenter and the construction supervisor who oversees his work is the heroine. That alone gives an indication that the power dynamics in this book do not involve a weak, powerless heroine and although "He'd said sex stood in the way of their being friends. By sunrise, she'd have that problem solved" (117). There's no domineering hero here:
[Hank] "I've tried to be your friend."
[Cat] "I know."
"But I've wanted you. [...] I wanted you this morning when I kissed you. It took every ounce of my self-control not to kiss you the way I wanted."
"The way I wanted," she repeated. In high heels, she hardly had to tilt her head back to invite his kiss. "Kiss me the way we both want."
"Cat, sweetheart, I won't stop with kisses."
She smiled. "I hope not." (123)
- In Sheila Bishop's Fair Game (1992), a historical romance, one of the secondary characters is the victim of what we'd now term a "date rape." The man asked to "enjoy his rights" and Madeleine, the young woman, refused. However later, having drunk
a good deal of champagne, [...] her apprehension melted. She was carried away on a tide of romantic fervour and promised to let him do what he asked.While Lion's behaviour is condemned, the novel takes a complex approach to sexual politics. The heroine, Olivia, realises that "In a literal sense she had come off lighly, but the anguish of other women acted as a commentary on her own unhappiness" (219). As a result of Lion's actions, Olivia judges the hero, Tom, much more harshly than he merits and:
They climbed the spiral stairs to the room above and here everything went wrong. From the way she spoke it was clear to Olivia that Madeleine had not been nearly as drunk as she supposed. She had simply taken enough to unbalance her judgement and dull her fears. The unheated room and Lion's rough approach to lovemaking served to clear her brain. She said she did not want to go any further. He became extremely angry and said that if she changed her mind now she would be breaking her promise. She knew this was true and let herself be bullied into submission. He hurt her a good deal and it was hardly surprising that this first experience of love was a humiliating failure. (214)
It was the old battle of the sexes, she supposed. The difficulty of men and women understanding each other's values. Men believed that when a pretty woman did not discourage them she was fair game, available for flirtation or dalliance. In revenge, women believed that when a man set out to charm them without serious intentions he was by definition a monster, capable of every other sort of villainy. (240)No excuses are made for Lion's behaviour, but without being anachronistic (this is, after all, a historical romance) the novel seeks to explore the effects on both men and women of a sexual market place (as described in my previous post) in which virginity is highly prized, there is a sexual double standard in place, and women must always be wary of rakes.
- In Polly Forrester's Winter of the Wolf (1991), a romance set in the Middle Ages, the heroine is the victim of both physical aggression and marital rape by her husband (who is not the hero). The abuser's excuses may temporarily convince the heroine, but both she and the reader are soon shown how hollow such justifications truly are:
'I would have been good to you ... It wasn't my fault, Rosalind ... I was always so busy, trying to make a living to support us - it's no wonder I got cross at times, but that's going to change - Rosalind, if only you could get me out of here I'd show you how much I really love you...'Not a page later, he's holding her hostage, with a knife to her back. After his death the heroine agrees to enter into a new marriage with the hero, who always treats her with great respect, even when he fears she may no longer love him. Hardly a novel which condones or romanticises the abuse of women.
He might have changed. The shock might have made him realise the wickedness of his old ways ... (170)
A disastrous early marriage had brought Sally a small daughter she adored, but had left her wary about the whole idea of love and commitment. Luke Sheridan knew exactly how she felt: after all he'd been through the same minefield and the experience had taught him to steer clear of involvement with women who took everything and gave nothing. Could they forget the past and find happiness together?The language of the back-cover copy, then, is not a particularly reliable source of information about the presence or absence of patriarchal values within the texts themselves.
I haven't yet read any of the romances mentioned by Bindel, so I admit that I too have less knowledge of them than is required to give a considered opinion of their contents, but Louise Allen's Virgin Slave, Barbarian King, which Bindel gives as an example, has been reviewed as follows:
Wulfric, a Visigoth, who takes her from the men who assaulted her in the streets of Rome. Saving her honor and virginity. As Wulfric's woman, or slave at fist, she's ordered to keep house er tent, for the marauders. Yet she quickly learns that as a slave in Wulfric's household she is far more free than she ever was as the protected, sheltered, obedient Roman virgin destined to be married off to further her families position in the great city.In other words, far from raping or coercing the heroine, this is a hero who saves the heroine from rape and, rather than being "full of patriarchal propaganda" the plot of the novel gives the heroine the opportunity to understand, and reject, the patriarchal values of ancient Rome, a fact which is apparent even if one only reads the excerpt, in which Julia begins to question her former life: "Two hours ago she had obeyed without question—the men would know best what to do. Her father, Julius Livius Rufus, a man in his Emperor's confidence for many years; her betrothed, Antonius Justus Celsus."
Wulfric is a powerful, beautiful man who prizes honor above the ability to throw a woman to the floor and take her simply because she is his slave. He won't touch her against her wishes [...] Ms. Allen goes out of her way to be aware of the history of the time period, the way young women were used, and the way the lives of Roman children were planned out by their parents in many respects. (Pray)
It seems to me that even within the Mills & Boon Modern (Harlequin Presents) line, where the sort of language used to describe the novels does tend to emphasise the hero's power (common words in the titles and back-cover copy are "mistress," "virgin," "bought," "revenge"), it is extremely important to look at the outcomes of the novels, as well as the initial premises described in the back-cover copy. As I found in my analysis of this line, it is not unusual for the heroine to critique a dominant hero's behaviour in feminist terms (and even, occasionally, to be explicitly identified as a feminist herself). In addition, not all of the heroes are particularly dominant/aggressive and, as has been noted elsewhere, particularly in this line "authors are increasingly devoting swaths of their books to upfront discussions of such serious sexual issues. Last month, Annie West's For the Sheikh's Pleasure focused on a woman struggling to be physically and emotionally intimate after being drugged and raped during a night out."
Bindel's arguments should not be completely dismissed: there have certainly been some Mills & Boon novels which normalised unacceptable acts of male verbal and sexual aggression, but ignoring the huge variety in Mills & Boon's output throughout the years, judging all their novels on the basis of a tiny sample, assuming that novels written 15 or more years ago are still representative of those being written and published in the 21st century, and judging books on the basis of their titles and back-cover copy, is not an academically rigorous way to go about the analysis of such a large number of novels.
- Algermissen, Jo Ann. Would You Marry Me Anyway? Richmond, Surrey: Silhouette, 1991.
- Bishop, Sheila. Fair Game. Richmond, Surrey: Mills & Boon, 1992.
- Dixon, jay. The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon, 1909-1990s. London: UCL P, 1999.
- Field, Sandra. Love in a Mist. Richmond, Surrey: Mills & Boon, 1988.
- Forrester, Polly. Winter of the Wolf. Richmond, Surrey: Mills & Boon, 1991.
- In the comments section at Meriam's blog Daisy Cummins (who offered a counterpoint to Bindel's part of the piece) clarifies her position.
- Scribbles explains the difference between sexual fantasies and reality.
- Michelle Styles references Teach Me Tonight and points out that Bindel "did not bother to properly research her piece."
- Kate Walker provides some more comment on the age of Bindel's sources.
- Secret Rebel, like Bindel, read some Mills & Boon a few years ago, so she feels qualified to state that "All M&B sex is euphemised rape, using the language of "possession", "ownership" and "dominance". There's no deviance or variation from this classic pattern. It's not that some M&B books are like this - they *all* are."
- The Smart Bitches post and spark off a lively and varied debate.
- A thread at All About Romance.
- More commentary, this time from Jane at Dear Author, who asks "whether we are what we read. Do the books reflect our social values (i.e., a romanticization of rape) or do books set our social values."
- In the light of the debate which is still continuing almost two weeks after Bindel's comments were first published, Robin takes another look at what it is that Bindel "identified in Romance, and the fact that it is a paradigm I think all Romance readers can recognize in the genre" and suggests that "we are trying to tell ourselves something in these novels. What that is, and why we feel so compelled to rehearse these scenarios over and over is not answerable from a single perspective, of course. But perhaps Bindel is reminding us that if we didn’t think this genre was important to begin with, we wouldn’t feel so passionate about defending it."