Navigating inconvenient truths as a feminist: An analysis of Mills and Boon
It’s a long-running joke in my social circle that we will all meet handsome millionaires, marry well and have an easy life where our biggest stressor is whether to sit Einaudi next to Lin Manuel Miranda at a dinner party. Of course, we don’t actually want that. Do we?
I’m one of those awful, awful women who will actually answer that question. At length. With a lengthy analysis of sex selection and human behaviour. And colourful anecdotes. And theory (Dunbar:2010) (Harari: 2007,2014). I’m about as impartial on this topic as Steve Bannon discussing the Clinton Foundation, so please click away if you hate rhetoric. I warned you.
Anyway. Can I be a feminist and admit that most evidence suggests that women would actually quite like a very wealthy, handsome boyfriend?
Let me start this essay with a short, interesting story. A hundred years ago, almost to the day, two British publishers hit a goldmine of an idea. Of course, women had a sexual appetite as much as the blokes buying the paperback sex lit in droves. But they couldn’t be seen to buy it, because that was far too immodest for a proper Edwardian lady. So how about packaging female fantasies as romances? And so, the Mills and Boon archetype book was born.
Let me give you a quick plot summary for those of you who aren’t well versed in badly written erotica:
PASSION AND GENERICS: THE VACUOUS GOLDDIGGER AND THE WALKING WALLET
Act 1: Beautiful, shy young woman is shy and beautiful. She is a secretary/shopgirl/nurse/bakery assistant. Her boss fancies her like crazy but she’s not all that into it. In walks handsome rich man, who is handsome and rich. He is smitten by her, despite her total blackhole of a personality.
Act 2: They flirt. Really badly. He probably gets topless at one point to help her save an injured bunny rabbit. There’s this weird scene where she goes in his helicopter or to his mansion, which sort of plays out as finance erotica. She falls for him, but there’s a snide rich woman he’s supposed to be with.
Act 3: Some kind of conflict happens where either her boss makes a move and is super creepy, or the snide rich female rival for his affections makes her look like a gold digger at the ball. But rich handsome man saves her at the last minute! She swoons.
Act 4: He marries her and they are super rich. And she doesn’t have to do typing or folding shirts anymore, because my god, has this bloke got money.
Okay, so it’s not Shakespeare. But this genre makes MILLIONS of dollars every year. This stuff, as much as I might hate it, is really, really popular with women. It’s escapism, it’s a refuge from being the plain, mousy junior consultant in Clapham, and it’s a ticket out of all your problems. But surely, in 2019, women want more than to marry into money and have babies? Is that really the deep, primal want of our gender?
Let’s take this to hard, cold facts for a little bit and make my hideously expensive BSc do some of the talking. So women, and men (let’s keep gender identity and homosexuality out of this for one essay purely so this isn’t a whole thesis) ‘select’ reproductive partners differently. There is variation here, but let’s be harsh and focus on the market majority.
WHAT WOMEN WANT
A) Babies are really flipping expensive. They cost calorific and social resources, so having a partner who will stick around and hunt for/protect your gene vehicle is a massive evolutionary payout, even if you do face the dilemma of having a daughter who looks like Mr Bean. You could be smart and marry a rich bloke who looks like a troll and have sex with a handsome young waiter to ensure that both resources and genetics were top-notch, but sadly society has developed a strategy against this (a lot of cultures insist women are virgins when they marry).
B) As women are the ones weathering pregnancy, child-rearing and breastfeeding, not to mention it takes us 9 months just to have one genetic offspring when a man can have literally hundreds, we are super choosy about our sexual partners. Because every offspring has to survive and be successful for us to bother.
WHAT MEN WANT
A)Men are typically a lot less choosy about who they choose to do the devil’s tango with. Which makes sense. Men don’t get pregnant, and men can sprint off to Ohio wearing a fake moustache if they see themselves being saddled with an unwanted baby. That doesn’t mean that men don’t select though: it’s just much more heavily weighted on looks rather than resources.
B) So men, typically, select for younger women who are statistically more fertile, have a hot waist to hip ratio, and demonstrate ‘maternal’ capabilities such as childcare, strong communication skills and a caring nature.
There are exceptions (huge, gaping exceptions) to the rule: cultural fetishisation (maybe it’s hot in your tribe to dye yourself blue) maybe you are gay or bisexual (yay, diversity) and maybe you have some weird childhood trauma that means you can only have sex with men who look like your great aunt on a rollercoaster in Maine. Because sexuality is complicated as hell and has so many nature/nurture hang-ups that I could literally write a book on it. Or ten. Anyway. The point still stands. Reproductive biology means that the way we sex select does weigh heavily in favour of men= resources, women= genetic desirability.
So is it in our genes to desire a rich guy and give up our mundane careers to raise his rugrats?
I’d actually argue no, despite all the scientific evidence (and market success) arguing in favour of that. Because what the books fantasise about isn’t actually all about Mr Rich. Hear me out.
Marrying Mr Rich isn’t about having his kids. It barely gets any attention in the books at all. It’s about the fantasy of being attractive. Desirable. Wanted. The fantasy of gaining power, respect, freedom, wealth. To many young women (and older women, even) working a 9 to 5 job in the typing pool with no hope of making it as a billionaire, inventor or top lawyer means we live our dreams through men who can. Living his lifestyle, and that proximity to power and influence, is intoxicating and exciting.
So I’d say that women aren’t wishing they were kept housewives at all when they joke (or fantasise) about marrying a rich guy.
We are fantasising about an easy way to escape and be free of debt, rent, bad skin, early morning shifts at the grocery store and the dream of going out to expensive spa days.
And what’s so wrong with that?