October 28, 2014

Mills & Boon undergoes radical change


This, but feminist. Image via Shutterstock.

This, but feminist. Image via Shutterstock.

In a comment piece for The Telegraph, the writer and author Radhika Sanghani argues that Mills & Boon is undergoing radical change. According to Sanghani a crop of new novels represent a new direction for the series: contemporary women’s fiction that can even be classed as feminist.

Mills & Boon, the supremely popular romance imprint, has long been known for escapist fantasies featuring rich men and the weak, needy women who are powerless to resist them. Over the years they have been described by various critics as predictable, responsible for poor sexual health, brainwashing women, misogynistic, pro-rape and a form of anti-women hate speech. In the 1970s, one Mills & Boon author, Violet Winspear, stated that she wrote heroes who would be “capable of rape”. In short, Mills & Boon is the epitome of anti-feminist literature.

So what’s changed? Sanghani goes on to list a number of new titles that the imprint has recently published, and is careful to show how the books are not just about women getting lured in by Greek hunks who are also secret princes, and the sex that ensues in these scenarios. One new book is Since You’ve Been Gone, the story of:

a young woman’s journey through widowhood. Admittedly the heroine, Holly Jefferson, is distracted by charming men, but unlike the typical Mills & Boons maidens of old, she’s also focused on her career: a bakery business.

Or how about A Part of Me, the tale of:

a couple trying to adopt a child. It goes into detail about the role of social workers, and what it means for a woman to be childless, and though there is a romance plot, this comes second to the heroine’s quest to have a child.

I think you have seen enough. Since You’ve Been Gone isn’t a new feminist tract, from the publishers who brought you One Night with the Sheikh and Taming the Notorious Sicilian, it’s the same old thing, only the heroine happens to have a job. And her career choice isn’t exactly reassuring: our young widow bakes cakes (and I’m going to guess they’re cupcakes) because women just love sugar and spice and all things nice.

The description for A Part of Me is even more mistaken in its presumption that it’s OK to give a novel a romantic subplot if your main focus is on the woman’s ovaries.  For those in the festive spirit there’s also And Maybe This Christmas, which “has all the trappings of a typical romance, but also explores issues of bullying”, a description that convinces only its ability to sum up every Mills & Boon novel that came before it. And then how about The Little Shop of Hopes and Dreams? In short, those are not hopes and dreams for a fairer and more equal society.

As a genre, Mills & Boon has never been backward in coming forward: it’s always been clear about what it is and what the novels set out to do (starting with the shirtless men on the covers and the women swooning in their laps). As listed above, there are many things to fault the series for, all of which can fall under the umbrella term of “anti-feminist”, but at least it was always honest. Deceiving readers by dressing up the same-old stories, albeit with contemporary women who earn a wage, under the label of feminist is fraudulent and potentially damaging to those readers looking for a definition of feminism.

Sanghani describes the “new” Mills & Boon as “a bold move for the publisher, which reflects the market trend for books that engage with strong women, and with feminism.” Her statement reveals the market-pressures behind the decision. It sounds like Mills & Boon would have been happy to keep sending out copies of nothing but The Tycoon’s Make-Believe Fiancée and One Night, So Pregnant! had they not been worried that sales were dropping off.

The “market trend”, it appears, is for books about women with careers who also use social media, and this, through a careful blend of consumer-research and boldly devious wording has led Mills & Boon to declare themselves feminist. One wonders whether if the market trend was for books about women who are in no way generalised and may have relationships with men and may not, may have children or may chose not to and may have jobs but might have other interests, all of which would be No Big Deal and not the focus of the story, Mills & Boon would have changed their fiction to reflect this. It would be hard to justify the naked man on the cover, though.

Sanghani’s own novel for the series, Virgin, is about a girl who is “desperate to lose her virginity. Virginity is, of course, a common Mills & Boons trope, but Ellie doesn’t want to lose it to The One.” Instead, “unlike a more old-school romance, the novel doesn’t end with true love; instead Ellie finds herself, and she finds feminism.”

Virgin teaches us an important lesson. Don’t be like Ellie; don’t go looking for feminism, or yourself, in Mills & Boon.


Zeljka Marosevic is the managing director of Melville House UK.