Over the last two decades, thanks to scholars such as Henry Jenkins, the study of fandom has become an integral part of media studies. My own work on film blogging and YouTube remix videos was an attempt to engage with this scholarship, especially as it played out within the cultures of cinephilia. What Jenkins and other scholars have pointed out is that fan practices are far more complicated than they might appear to outsiders and that cultural forms, whether romance fiction or genre television, should not be dismissed as “low” forms, in part because of the cultural work they are doing. Because of that background, I found myself growing increasingly frustrated with Julie Moggan’s Guilty Pleasures, the Opening night film at this year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, a documentary that follows the lives of a carefully selected group of people whose lives are affected by their role in producing or consuming Mills and Boon romance novels.
The reading culture around Mills and Boon novels is massive. Pre-credit titles tell us that a Mills and Boon novel is purchased somewhere in the world every three seconds. Roger, an older male author who writes under the name, Gill Sanderson (because male authors apparently aren’t well received in the Mills and Boon audience), speculates that his novels have been translated into a dozen languages, while Stephen, the handsome but flighty male model, estimates that he has graced the cover of over 200 romance novels.
Meanwhile we are introduced to three readers, each from a different part of the world, and each with her own sense of emptiness that the Mills and Boon novels ostensibly fill. Shirley is a British woman who shares a life with her husband, Phil, who at the beginning of the movie, at least, seems to show more affection to his do-it-yourself guides and tool belts than he does to his wife. Hiroko reads her Mills and Boon novels on the Tokyo subway and fantasizes about being swept away by her ballroom dance instructor, while her somewhat impassive husband admits that he lacks the grace to sweep her of her feet on the dance floor. Finally, Shumita, an Indian woman reads the novels and longs to be reunited with her ex-husband who left her, in part he says, because she became a “militant feminist” for reading Erica Jong and Gloria Steinem. In some sense, reading the books seems to hold Shumita in an unhappy cycle: she longs for the happy ending and spends much of the film worrying about her appearance, getting facials and worrying about her weight, all for a guy who seems more fixated on his car than anything else in the world.
Thus, rather than really being about the culture of romance reading (or even romance writing), the documentary is really trying harder to be a “real life romcom,” as Tanya Gold observes in her Guardian review, one that explores the cultural desire for romantic connections, while using the Mills and Boon books as a platform for exploring that. Thus, for people who are romance studies scholars, the film will likely be a big disappointment. By looking solely at the Mills and Boon universe, the documentary misses out on literally dozens of other subgenres of romance, while also playing into practically every conceivable stereotype of romance readers. At one point, Moggan cuts to Shirley eating bon bons and sipping wine in bed while reading a Mills and Boon. Similarly, Shumita is often shown curled in bed reading, the books an apparent escape from her romantic solitude. Finally, the choice of two male figures, Roger and Stephen, to stand in as the producers of Mills and Boon novels seems odd given that virtually all romance writers are female. Although that is hinted at briefly when we see that Roger is the only male author at the Romance Writers convention, the lens for looking at this culture seemed a bit too narrow.
To be fair, Moggan seemed less interested in doing an anthropological study and more inclined to create a narrative involving each of the five major characters. At one point, Roger, echoing the recommendations of many creative writing teachers, remarks that all major characters must undergo a change by the end of the book, and Moggan seeks to follow the trajectories of Shirley, Shumita, and Hiroko, as they negotiate their domestic and romantic lives. Meanwhile Stephen, at the beginning of the movie comes across as charming but also narcissistic, obsessed with food and seeking out his “twin flame,” a partner who will be just as beautiful as he is. Roger, meanwhile, seems to have a quiet existence, just the opposite of what you might expect a writer of passionate romances to have.
But even these stories seemed to play into, rather than critiquing, the stereotypes of romance readers (and here, I do want to point out that Gold’s assessment in The Guardian of most of characters seems a bit harsh and ungenerous). During the Q&A Moggan commented that she was trying to explore the distinctions between appearance and reality through the characters. Roger is not the female author he claims to be. Stephen, far from having a glamorous lifestyle, tends to spend a lot of time at home in his relatively spartan apartment. Shumita desperately seeks out the happy endings provided in the romance novels, to the point that she is blind to her ex-husband’s shallowness. Hiroko reads about ideal worlds while riding the subway or while hanging out at home with her geeky husband who dreams of fathering an entire baseball team. It’s a familiar hook, but one that misrepresents romance readership, casting it primarily as a form of escape. Even so, some of the characters do make the effort to change, in ways I’ll avoid spoiling here.
To some extent, I think the documentary could have benefitted from some kind of meta-commentary, someone who could comment on the complications of romance readership. Moggan mentioned during the Q&A also that she had not been a reader of romance fiction prior to making the film, and I think that was evident in a couple of places, especially when she plays into the worst stereotypes of passive, wine-sipping female readers.