‘Mills & Boon’ has become a buzzword for a trashy genre of romance, featuring victimised virgins, lusty lords and inevitably cringing sex-scenes. Besides from being such a colourful adjective, Mills & Boon is in fact a global publishing company, founded in 1908 by Gerald Mills and Charles Boon, specialising in romantic fiction.
Mills & Boon romance has been spread into various sub-genres including Historical and Medical – where you may find titles like ‘Beauty and the Baron’ (Deborah Hale) and ‘Safe in His Hands’ (Amy Ruttan) – and Romance Suspense, like ‘Operation Blind Date’ (Justine Davis), or other titles including ‘A Very Personal Assistant’ (Portia Da Costa).
Perfect sex in a book, like in a Hollywood movie, is idealised.
According to company statistics, a Mills & Boon book is sold every three seconds. Since the launch of Mills & Boon’s ebook programme in September 2008, the publishers have been releasing approximately 100 ebooks a month; more than it does in print. With the possibility of awkward glances on the bus evicted, it is no wonder the ebook programme has been a staggering success.
Flicking through the pages of ‘Captivated by her Innocence’ (Kim Lawrence) or ‘The Mistress’ (Tiffany Reisz) it is uncertain whether romance is anything akin to real life, despite the company strapline, ‘Bring Romance to Life’. Although Mills & Boon claim ‘there is no formula’, Mills & Boon author Sharon Kendrick admits, “Everyone knows the hero and heroine are going to end up married.” Penny Jordan, writer of more than 170 Mills & Boon novels, says, “Every genre has its own little rules.” These novels clearly have a definite endgame in mind: happiness and satisfaction; something real life is never duty bound to offer.
Only 11.5% of romantic novels mention condom use
The effects of these sugar-coated realities have been identified by some as decidedly negative and potentially unhealthy. After a survey in 2011 showed that only 11.5% of romantic novels mention condom use, psychologist Susan Quilliam concluded that there was a “clear correlation” between romance reading and a negative attitude towards condoms resulting in unsafe sex. Whether this hypothesis is true will require more detailed and rigorous research.
Clearly the opposing argument to this is that readers should be aware that the book world is structurally separate from reality; perfect sex in a book, like in a Hollywood movie, is idealized. However a lack of age restriction on literature paves the way for less sexually educated readers; who may take the fabricated plots of Mills & Boon as their basis for understanding sex and relationships.
“You wouldn’t want a short fat balding hero”
It is also undeniable that Mills & Boon produce notably one sided depictions of male and female gender roles. Firstly, characters in their romances are predominantly heterosexual, alienating a significant portion of the population. In terms of gender stereotypes it is the male characters who suffer most; they are the ultimate objective of the novel. Mills & Boon favour the Alpha Male: “He takes control and drives the story; he has the power to make things happen! He is the key driver of the romance – he is the aspiration of the story’s heroine (and the reader)… remember that he is the man whom every woman wants”. Penny Joran, in her interview with the Guardian, bluntly stated, “You wouldn’t want a short fat balding hero”. So are Mills & Boon reflecting our idea of the ideal male or are they giving us a stereotype which we must conform to?
You can be certain of a happy ending… and a giggly sex scene to read aloud.
Yet we must keep the purpose of these romantic novels in sight: to entertain. Reading trashy romance is just like watching bad soaps on TV – easy entertainment. We could say that the issues of fantasy and a lack of realism could be projected on to any work of romantic literature, ‘Pride and Prejudice’ or ‘Jane Eyre’; the soaps of the 19th Century?
At the end of the day, curling up with an easy read and a cup of tea, blocking out the cynicism of the world, could be the perfect way to relax: at least you can be certain of a happy ending… and a giggly sex scene to read aloud.
Eve Wersocki Morris
Image: Orionpozo via Flikr.