Women Empowerment

These are not your aunt’s Mills & Boons. They’re funny and fierce. And they aren’t romances

The Modern’s Girl’s Guide is a series of books with which Mills & Boons is going beyond its romance formula.

In the years when my school friends were going mad over the battered Mills & Boonor MBs, as they were callednovels that they acquired each week from a hole-in-the-wall lending library in north Calcutta (the sex scenes were helpfully catalogued by page number on the inside cover) I was reading classics – well, at least a few classics – and being generally insufferable about the shallowness of Mills & Boon novels.

What I was concealing from the peer group, however, was that I had also discovered, quite smartly and quite early, that sex scenes in novels like Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds or Judith Krantz’s Till We Meet Again, were far more satisfying, and embodied the added virtue of not attracting any judgment from our English teachers, something that reading Mills & Boons did. Also, there was the feminist argument some senior girls with vicious haircuts forwarded: the romances created these passive and nyakaa heroines who ought to be severely slapped, not slavishly emulated.

Karma strikes

Naturally it was entirely karmic that in my MA days and after that I was to become a convert. Talking ad infinitum, ad nauseum, about the importance of popular fiction – especially of the MB variety – that, via its insistence on the “happy ending” and allowing women to freely articulate their fantasies, was taking a post-feminist stand after all. Not only did the company, since its inception, provide enough escapist fantasies to help women overcome the daily drudgery and hardships of their lives (especially during the two world wars), but it also empowered its authors, almost all of them women, by enabling their robust careers as romance novelists.

During the 1940s, for instance, Mills & Boon discovered one of its biggest stars: Lilian Warren. She wrote prolifically, and under three pseudonyms – Rosalind Brett, Kathryn Blair and Celine Conway – and her three different voices set a million hearts aflutter.

In the 1950s, Harlequin Books, the Canadian publishing company (specialising in reprints of mysteries, Westerns and thrillers) started publishing Mills & Boon medical (read doctor-nurse romance) novels, and, eventually, buoyed by the success, the two companies collaborated more, and published each other’s titles in their own countries.

By the late 1960s, fortunately for many, the traditional themes began to be challenged and a brasher heroine emerged. Some of the older readers were shocked by the erotic turn the books took. The younger readers were not complaining.

In 1971, the two companies merged. Some years later, the Canadian communications company Torstar bought the controlling stake and the dominance of the brand became unrivalled and near-global. Second-hand MBs found their way to far corners of the globe.

In August 2014, News Corp, HarperCollins’s parent corporation – owned by Rupert Murdoch – acquired Harlequin Enterprises, including the best-selling Mills & Boon brand, from Torstar Corporation. Every month now, Mills & Boon publishes 120 new titles under sixteen distinct imprints that cater to the specific desires of a global readership, from medical romances to historical, Afro-American (“Kimani”) and paranormal (“Nocturne”) ones. A Mills & Boon book is sold every five seconds in the UK, and while their popularity is not quite as staggering in India, every bookstore has its stack of MBs for young ladies and lending libraries continue to operate with their stack of classics.

The modern girl’s guides

Inspired by massive success of the Ladybird Books for Grownups, a spoof series that takes off from the Ladybird books we all read – or were read to from – as kids in the post-colonial middle classes, the Mills and Boon Modern Girl’s Guides – Happy Endings, Happy Hour, Working 9 to 5, and Helping Yourself are four near-perfect, utterly collectible books meant for those who, like me, are not authentic fans of the original genre, but like to bandy about the word “post-feminist”, take up healing fads regularly, shop online while drunk, or find themselves on the wrong side of internet trends.

This is what the books have to say about themselves:

Since 1908, Mills & Boon have been a girl’s best friend.

We’ve seen a lot of changes in the years since: enjoying sex as a woman is not only officially fine but actively encouraged, dry shampoo has revolutionised our lives and, best of all, we’ve come full circle on gin.

But being a woman still has its challenges. We’re under-paid, exhaustingly objectified, and under-represented at top tables....

Sometimes, a girl just needs a break.

And, for a century, that’s where we’ve come in.

So, to celebrate one hundred years of wisdom (or at least a lot of fun), we’ve produced these handy A-Zs: funny, feisty, feminist guides to help the modern girl get through the day.

We can’t promise an end to bulls*t.

But we can offer some light relief along the way.

The hard-bound little books follow a simple formula. They go A to Z (though some letters have several entries and I am still trying to run a regression analysis to understand if there might be a pattern to explain which ones are repeated and why that might be the case) and each entry on the recto is preceded by a vintage – or faux-vintage – black-and-white picture on the verso. The entries range from mildly funny to hysterical on the British Humour Scale, which is, as you know, an actual thing. Consider D for Dating Apps from The Mills & Boon Modern Girl’s Guide to Happy Endings, where the following text sits next to a Gregory Peckish man surrounded by a hundred Gregory Peckish hats:

Dating Apps

What they Say: “Our unique algorithm will use a range of metrics to find our perfect match”

What they Mean: “Our unpaid intern will pull names out of a bin, and you’ll end up with some hat collecting freak.”

Or pause at O for “Office Naps” from The Mills and Boon Modern Girl’s Guide to Working 9 to 5. A character who well might be Caroline Bingley from the Colin Firth-Jennifer Ehle production of Pride and Prejudice sleeps upon a mass of papers, disastrously close to the ink pot (image reproduced on the cover of the book):

Office Naps

Virginia has just realised it’s the 19th of November, the day that women have to go to work for free for the rest of the year.

This doesn’t apply to Jeff at the next desk.

He gets paid for all 365 days.

Virginia has taken the executive decision to nap for the next month and a half.

I had, predictably, reached for The Mills and Boon Modern Girl’s Guide to Helping Yourself first, having said a resounding yes to the quiz on the blurb: Have You Ever: A: Wondered whether January really is the best time to start your new diet, with all those forgiving layers and leftover Christmas selection boxes lying around? B: Had to accept that your vast collection of novelty shot glasses means you will never live a truly minimalist life? C: Considered the respective merits of clean living vs. having your cake and eating it, and ending up holding the éclair? But quickly, I had to admit to myself that it hit too close home for the laughs to be anything but guilty. The Mills and Boon Modern Girl’s Guide to Happy Hour was, on the contrary, less funny and less vague.

A guide to reading the guides

Pretend they are for your best friend’s birthday and you are gifting these as a sort of joke to remind her that once upon a time, long long ago, before Netflix and Instagram, books in general and MBs in particular, were her best friends. In truth, find self unable to part with them on the day of her birthday and gift her a Fitbit instead. Makes similar point. (Plus, you’ll never be tempted to keep it.)

Spend an inordinate amount of time trying to decide which of the four ought to be read first. Give up. Go to bed.

On the commute find “C for Commute” and laugh dementedly. For a lack of better option to jab your fingers at the book and flash it in your neighbour’s face until you realise that she might be a college student but she’s never seen a book.

Commute

Alternative methods of getting to work that would still be better than Amy’s current commute on a train franchise we are unable to name for legal reasons:

Atop an emaciated donkey like you see in those donkey sanctuary adverts
Through an actual river of treacle
A biplane full of scorpions
Just sitting and waiting for tectonic shifts in the earth’s crust to take her in the right direction

Feel miserable and empty by mid-morning when all four books have been read and the work is far too dreary to be contemplated. You inveigle your intern – not your intern but the company’s – to make a chart of the A-Zs. The lack of pattern is driving you nuts.

The Mills & Boon Modern Girl’s Guide to Working 9 to 5

A B B C D D D E E F G H I I I J K L L M M M N O P P P Q R S S T U U U V W W X Y Z

The Mills & Boon Modern Girl’s Guide to Happy Endings

A B B C D D E F F G H H I I I J K L L M M M N O O P P Q R S S S T T T U V W X Y Z

The Mills & Boon Modern Girl’s Guide to Happy Hour

A B B C C D D E E F F F G H H H H I I J K L M N O P P P Q R S S T T U V V W X Y Z

The Mills & Boon Modern Girl’s Guide to Helping Yourself

A B B C C D E E F F G H I J K L M M N N O P P P P Q R R R R S S T T U V W X Y Y Z

You are horrified to learn the intern doesn’t know what Mills and Boon is. You shoo him off and try to involve the auditors in the conference room in trying to decode the pattern.

A few days later you try to pass off a few of the jokes as your own and fail at the punchlines. Wait, are there punchlines? You realise you need to read the books again.

You obsessively try to find out who the author Ada Adverse is.

The intern comes and reports he has read his first MB. You realise, your job here is done.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

Play

This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.