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FILM REVIEW: Guilty Pleasures

Since posting this guest review it has come to my attention that the reviewer is an advisor for a competing documentary film and has received compensation for the advisory services.  This was not previously disclosed.

On Thursday July 11, at 10pm, PBS’s POV showed Guilty Pleasures, a documentary by British filmmaker Julie Moggan. This film follows five people connected with the romance industry: three reader: Shumita in India, Hiroko in Japan, and Shirley in the UK; cover model Stephen in NYC, and male author Gill Sanderson, also from the UK.

Shumita at the beauty salon
Credit: Julie Moggan

I saw this film at the Durham Full Frame documentary film festival last year. Librarian extraordinaire, Jennifer Lohmann, reviewed it at SBTB, and did a bang up job, much more detailed than I’m going to be, so go read her amazing review, too. But considering that PBS is going to show it over here, I did want to provide my version of a review for the DA audience.

I’m much more unforgiving, much more angry about this movie than Jennifer was. Every time I think about it, I growl. I think Moggan was unforgivably cruel to all of her subjects but especially to the cover model Stephen (more about that in a bit). I think she used and abused every romance stereotype out there, up to and including reading romance while eating chocolate bonbons or while in a green face mask.

The film was shot using deliberately garish colors. Everything was candy pink, tangerine orange, teal, aqua. The colors were not those that inspire confidence in the professionalism or seriousness of the subject under consideration.

All the subjects were meant to be understood as pathetic. The Japanese woman was pathetic in her attempt to bring some of the magic from her books into her life through her ballroom dancing lessons. The English woman’s attempts at adding a little “romance” to her life, despite her bipolar partner, were pathetic and risible. The Indian woman was utterly pathetic in thinking her philandering husband would ever grow up. Gill Sanderson, writing sex scenes in his little caravan with his bald head and his boiling kettle was pathetic. And the cover model looking for his soul mate wasstupid and pathetic.

And of course, these people are not pathetic. They’re just people, trying to get through life. But the WAY they were shot, the choice of narrative structure, the snippets and sound bites there were chosen to tell their story, the lighting and camera angles–they’re all chosen to make us laugh AT these people.

The film was shot for laughs. We were supposed to laugh, and we were supposed to laugh AT the subjects of the film. And the audience totally went for that. The audience with whom I saw the movie was one of documentary film aficionados, so not your typical romance reader. And they went along with every cheap laugh they were offered. The film OPENS with typewriter-style lettering on the screen, saying that a romance sells every four seconds. Oh, hysterical!

I think seeing it with that audience made the whole thing worse, honestly. This was an audience of thoughtful, educated (if perhaps slightly over-educated and snobbish) people who LIKE documentary films, and they were all giggling like 14 year old boys at the dirty bits. And this is what they are being shown of the romance world.

As Jennifer Lohmann said, the film maker was in attendance and ran a Q&A afterwards. I asked her why she used a male romance author, rather than one of the many female authors, and she admitted straight out it was because of the comedic potential a male author presented.

And the thing that got to me more than anything else? In the film, cover model Stephen tells us all about wanting to find his soul mate. The film maker stays with him for two weeks as he tells her all about this. She goes back to shoot him a few months later when he does fall for someone. And at the festival, as he’s interviewed with the film maker, an audience question is whether he’s still with the same woman. When he says yes and has her stand, everyone in the audience clapped and cheered — the biggest cheer for the whole night. Everyone in that audience WANTED him to find his one true love, wanted him to still be with her, just as much as he did. Everyone in that audience who cheered bought into the romance narrative as much as anyone who’d ever loved a romance novel. And almost everyone in that audience would disdain actually READING a romance.

And that’s what got to me. The disdain dripping from the movie and the cruelty with which it depicted its subjects was thoroughly enjoyed by almost everyone in the audience who laughed AT the subject precisely when they were supposed to. And yet, they all still wanted the HEA for the cover model. And no one seemed to see the sheer irony in that.

Sarah S. G. Frantz, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Literature, Fayetteville State University
President, The International Association for the Study of Popular Romance

Guest Reviewer

32 Comments

  1. Avery Flynn
    Jul 13, 2012 @ 07:39:28

    Well said! All I can add is a fist raised in solidarity.

  2. Darlene Marshall
    Jul 13, 2012 @ 07:54:47

    It made me so angry I had to turn it off. I expect cheap shots from some networks, but not PBS.

  3. Brie
    Jul 13, 2012 @ 08:41:46

    Yep, didn’t watch this because the title alone made me think that it was going to be filled with stereotypes, mockery at the expense of the characters and a lot of ridicule to the genre and its readers. I was right, it makes me incredibly mad but also sad.

  4. Ren
    Jul 13, 2012 @ 08:46:33

    The title says it all.

    “Are you deriving joy from something? SHAME ON YOU!”

  5. cleo
    Jul 13, 2012 @ 09:23:39

    Reading about this makes me really, really look forward to the Popular Romance Project’s forthcoming documentary. I thought about watching Guilty Pleasures but decided to pass based on neg reviews.

  6. Jody W.
    Jul 13, 2012 @ 09:36:22

    Like Brie, I saw the title, and that was enough for me to shy away. I see my instincts were reliable. I don’t relate to feeling guilty about the fact I like to read.

  7. Jen
    Jul 13, 2012 @ 09:59:04

    I heard about this on NPR this morning and thought “Oh I’ll have to record the re-airing” but after reading what it’s really about? That’s awful. When you see how a great narrative could have been fashioned but was ignored for the sake of mockery, that’s just disappointing on so many levels.

  8. leslie
    Jul 13, 2012 @ 11:04:30

    Please flood NPR with listener letters! It’s a way to smack Julie Moggen and boy does she deserve it. Shameful!

  9. Brussel Sprout
    Jul 13, 2012 @ 11:05:08

    Much better was Silver River TV’s 3 hour exploration of the genre aired on Bbc4 a few years ago. There are clips on YouTube. And I’m not just saying that because I was interviewed for it;-)

  10. Jennifer Leeland
    Jul 13, 2012 @ 12:32:14

    I just watched it and…well…I wasn’t offended. I found the people in the show real and poignant despite possibly aiming for laughs. I didn’t laugh much. I mean, I found the doubt, the struggle between fiction and reality so intensely personal that I didn’t find any of it funny. The idea of laughing at a woman who is struggling with a bipolar husband or a woman who is contemplating renewing a relationship with a tool doesn’t tickle my funny bone. The absolutely beautiful story of a husband willing to learn to dance so he could help his wife fulfill her dream to compete in ballroom dancing was so awesome, not funny.
    It may not have been the producers intention, but it renewed my desire to continue to write for all the readers who want that escape for a few hours.
    The intention of the camera doesn’t matter to me. I think the people on the screen were brave and fantastic. For me, that made it worth watching.

  11. Shelly
    Jul 13, 2012 @ 13:06:10

    I thought the film did take a few cheap shots (the woman on the couch eating the chocolate as she read her Harlequin…oh, how original!) but I agree that the people in the movie were very sympathetic. I am a little annoyed at the “either or” choice that is presented in the film: Either you embrace the world of romantic fantasy in these novels OR you accept the world of true representation of love, which is more genuine and subtle. The truth is there are MANY authors who write romances that aren’t filled with purple prose and try to introduce a more realistic idea of love into their novels. The love stories that were represented in that film (the couple that reconnects through ballroom dancing, the pretty boy who secretly longs for his soul mate, and the couple who battle through one’s mental illness) HAVE been represented in romance novels! I just think the director was either misinformed about the genre, or willfully ignored more realistic representations of romance that you can easily find on bookshelves in order to go with a cinematic theme that was more titilating.

  12. SonomaLass
    Jul 13, 2012 @ 13:50:30

    I’m going with “willfully ignored,” based on her answer to Sarah’s question about choosing to feature the rare male romance author. The filmmaker had a story to tell, and it’s not really a story I care to watch. A shame, IMO, because there are many aspects of the appeal of romance literature that would be worth a serious documentary examination.

    I think it’s wonderful that some viewers, such as Shelly and Jennifer, could find the subjects sympathetic. And I agree that the irony is powerful, Sarah — I find the same thing amongst romance disparagers of my acquaintance. Sure, some of them are just plain unromantic cynics, but others want happiness for themselves and for others. They smile and sigh when a couple surmounts any sort of odds to get together, and they much prefer seeing a relationship succeed than fail. They even complain when relationships in their non-romance fiction don’t work out well, although they’d never seek out a book where the relationship working out is what it’s all about.

    Thanks for sharing your take on this one; it confirms my instincts to give it a miss.

  13. LG
    Jul 13, 2012 @ 14:02:30

    @SonomaLass: “They even complain when relationships in their non-romance fiction don’t work out well, although they’d never seek out a book where the relationship working out is what it’s all about.”

    I had a similar attitude once. What got me over it was cross-over books. I was a sci-fi/fantasy reader, so someone who knew my tastes (and new I like the romantic bits of my books, even if I wouldn’t admit it) recommended a futuristic romance book with a non-embarrassing cover. Which, as it turns out, was originally published as a science fiction book and only later repackaged as romance. But at least it got me to give romance novels a try.

  14. Caro
    Jul 13, 2012 @ 15:05:33

    The programme was shown this week in Canada on CBC’s documentary series, “The Passionate Eye.” I had the same reaction as Sarah. The readers were represented as pathetic, searching for romance, specifically an unrealistic Harlequin Presents-style romance, in many wrong places with, in some cases, the wrong people. It reinforces the general public’s skewed perception of romance readers as frustrated wives searching desperately for the romantic lives of the characters who populate their fiction. Although I might have missed it, there was no scene of any female reader working outside the home and little sense that any of these women were highly educated. The focus was firmly on the domestic and marital lives of these women. To counterbalance this stereotyping of the female reader, complete with obligatory bon-bon, the filmmaker could have shown the working life of a female romance author as romance is a genre primarily written by women. There are hugely successful British authors that could have been interviewed; Lynne Graham, whose book was being read by the reader from India, is one obvious example. The choice of Gill Sanderson, who writes for the Harlequin Medical Line, which does not have wide distribution in North America, was not done for reasons of gender equity or to provide a male point of view, but to reinforce the prevailing idea of the documentary that everyone involved in the romance industry, including the cover model apparently preoccupied with moodboards, Taoism, and building interesting outfits, is pathetic.

  15. Ros
    Jul 13, 2012 @ 16:02:44

    @Jennifer Leeland: I agree. I watched it on the BBC a couple of years ago, so I don’t remember all the details, but I definitely didn’t see it as a film mocking its subjects. I thought there was a real poignancy, especially for the woman with the bipolar husband. Maybe because I watched it on TV at home, on my own, I didn’t feel any of the public mocking of romance which I can see might happen at a public showing.

  16. Sarah Frantz
    Jul 13, 2012 @ 16:57:20

    @cleo: Yes! I’m working with PRP, so I’m hardly an independent observer, but I interrogated the film maker before I started working with her to make sure she WOULDN’T do this. And I think/hope that we can all see from the website that the PRP takes the romance world and the amazing women who belong to it utterly seriously.

    @Jennifer Leeland: I don’t disagree with you. The people are people, and they’re doing what they can and what they need to in order to get by in life with all the joy they can. The issue was the LENS through which those people were being examined. The LENS was off, not the people. The LENS distorted their lives, set them up for ridicule, and that is unconscionable, IMO.

  17. Gillyweed
    Jul 13, 2012 @ 23:39:07

    I was really interested in this discussion so I stopped about halfway through Sarah’s review and watched the movie on PBS’s website. I can see some of where Sarah is coming from. The movie isn’t about romance novels but the filmmaker does use romances as a framing device and sometimes in a stereotyping way. The title, Guilty Pleasures, felt strangely inapt to me as none of the documentary subjects ever apologize for or try to hide their passion for reading (or writing or posing for the covers of) romances; on the other hand, audience censure/reader shaming is encouraged by the title and that definitely seems to have come out at the screening Sarah attended.

    I had a different experience watching it alone. Like a couple of other commenters, I sympathized with the characters and was moved by their struggles. At its heart, the movie is about the human impulse to love and to be loved; it’s not about mocking the genre and its readers, at least I didn’t get that. Anyway, it’s up on PBS’s website if people want to check it out: http://video.pbs.org/video/2243423340

  18. Alyson
    Jul 14, 2012 @ 08:59:10

    Sarah, thanks for your take on this–I don’t know if I’ve missed my local PBS airing, but I’ll look for it. I remember an elevator chat at RWA conference a few years ago with a woman who was working on a documentary about romance novels. But she had made a film about Tupperware (which, by coincidence, I had seen), and that’s not Moggan, right? Do you know anything about that other film? Is it the PRP project you mentioned?

    @Ren: That’s hilarious. Author Sherry Thomas made me reconsider this phrase a few years ago. I still apply it to my fondness for Inside Edition, but otherwise, I’m a lot more thoughtful when I hear people use it.

  19. Laura Vivanco
    Jul 14, 2012 @ 09:25:15

    @Alyson: Yes, that’s the PRP project. Laurie Kahn is the documentary-maker who previously made Tupperware!. You can read about the project here. The project’s website showcases short videos of interviews with romance authors and clips from behind the scenes.

  20. Steve Pribish
    Jul 14, 2012 @ 10:40:15

    I am no longer surprised that people make negative comments on films they have not seen. I’ve just finished viewing “Guilty Pleasures” and found it a very moving portrait of five people joined by their love of romance novels. Please, if you’re going to criticize at least give the producer the benefit of having watched her work.

  21. Estara
    Jul 14, 2012 @ 14:54:07

    @LG: I just have to guess – a Linnea Sinclair book? I like her sf cover versions better myself ^^

  22. LG
    Jul 14, 2012 @ 18:59:50

    @Estara: Nope. Ann Maxwell’s Fire Dancer. The library copy I read had a plain red cover. Maybe metallic? Not the clinch cover I associated with romance, but the cover said it was romance, and it was shelved in the library’s romance area. It wasn’t until years later when I found an older copy of the book in a used bookstore that I realized it was originally published as science fiction. Suddenly the frustratingly unfinished romance made more sense.

  23. Merrian
    Jul 14, 2012 @ 21:14:17

    @LG: I still have this book and her other SF titles – Dead God Dancing, Jaws of Menx. They survived the great book purge when I moved house for lots of reasons but in part for the realisation that I was searching for romance in all the wrong places. I loved the world building as an SF reader but going back and re-reading them later it is the romance arcs that dominate the stories for me.

  24. Merrian
    Jul 14, 2012 @ 21:20:05

    @Steve Pribish: Not sure who that is directed too. Sarah, the reviewer has seen the doco and reports that it is the producer’s way of looking at her characters that is the issue and the choices she has made about what we see in the production. I have seen the documentary and agree with her.

    Nor are you acknowledgeing that a documentary like this doesn’t stand on its own. It is seen and experienced through a ususally negative range of perceptions from the broader culture and often expressed by individuals to romance readers. Sarah’s description of the response of the film festival viewing audience highlights this reality.

  25. Little Red
    Jul 14, 2012 @ 23:56:24

    I’m watching it right now. I’m not getting any mocking. Poignant is a good description. I’ll watch it again if I can to see if I can pick up the mockery.

  26. Merrian
    Jul 15, 2012 @ 00:30:49

    @Little Red: My response to ‘poignancy’ is to ask if this relegates romance reading to the realm of help for the sick/broken? In creating a narrative about romance novel making and reading across the world that views the creating and experience of reading as something out of the mainstream which ignores the reality of the genre and its readers.

  27. Estara
    Jul 15, 2012 @ 03:34:33

    @LG: Oooh, good one! I WISH she had finished that series, but as she explained somewhere on her site the publisher didn’t renew for any more books in that series. I so wanted a happy end for Kirtn and Reba (interestingly enough I am sure about the hero’s name without looking, but not the heroine’s…. hmm).

    ETA: reading yours and Merrian’s response in more detail – ladies, you do know that there are two more dancer books out there, don’t you? They still don’t quite resolve the initial romance, but they do forward it and are interesting to read for other characters and plot points, too.
    http://www.goodreads.com/series/41941-dancer

  28. etv13
    Jul 17, 2012 @ 03:38:45

    I just watched this tonight, and I didn’t think it was remotely funny, or that it was intended to be funny. Shumita’s ex-husband was a jackass, and I think he’s clearly portrayed as such. Phil, the bi-polar guy, was approached with much more sympathy — he and his wife get the montage with his (very romantic) choice of music at the end, and we see in general that while he’s not your typical romance hero, he’s a decent guy and good husband, and they have a good marriage. I felt very sorry for both members of the Japanese couple (he wanted more children, she had a crush on her dance instructor), until he decided to learn to dance and enter the competitions with her, and they get their happy ending after all. I agree the male model was presented as “pretty but dumb,” but he’s not actually a romance reader, so you can’t say the piece was making fun of him on that ground. (He was really attractive, until he opened his mouth, and now I’d like to see Heidi Cullinan or Z.A. Maxfield or someone do a male/male romance with a romance cover model as one of the leads. Maybe he could be a grad student in Russian Studies or something.)

    People have wildly differing senses of what is funny (I read Eudora Welty’s “Losing Battles” based on Guy Davenport’s review indicating that it was howlingly funhy, and I didn’t find it amusing at all, I thought the characters were annoying feckless), but this just didn’t seem to me as if it was intended to be funny. I thought the way it ended, with the Japanese couple winning their dance competition and Roger Sanderson saying, in effect, “Everyone wants a happy ending, and that’s a good thing,” was a vindication of romance, not a joke.

  29. etv13
    Jul 17, 2012 @ 04:08:40

    I wanted to add, “candy pink, tangerine orange,” etc. — did we watch the same video? Where was all this pink and orange? What I saw were a lot of pretty drab, middle and lower-middle-class houses/apartments, and people dressed in anything but pink and orange. The only person whose physical surroundings were remotely glamorized were the male model’s, where he’s shown on the boat, and his apartment, too, is very ordinary, at best. I don’t recall anybody wearing pink or orange, or anybody’s home decorated that way.

    Anyway, what I saw were a lot of fairly ordinary people, sympathetically presented, whose lives were difficult, but not hopeless, and I certainly didn’t feel invited to laugh at them (except for Sanjay, whose obsession with his Porsche seemed deserving of derision).

  30. Jennifer Leeland
    Jul 17, 2012 @ 08:06:55

    I totally agree that the LENS may have been distorted, seeking to hold up romance to ridicule. But like the books themselves, the intention of the producer ceased to matter once the film was viewed by the audience. The fact is (to me anyway) that I brought my own feelings, thoughts and beliefs to the table (just as readers do) and I found so much in this film to appreciate and enjoy.
    One thing that occurred to me as the characters portrayed haunted me. The author they chose to feature was a man, writing romance for woman, and was totally alone. In every shot, every scene (except when he was interacting with his readers) he was a solitary, lonely man. That struck me. Here was someone who seemed to have no one in his life and he wrote romance for others with apparently none of his own.
    I think, without meaning to, the filmmakers created something…thought provoking. Often, a reader will grasp something in my books I never realized was there. Again, I didn’t see any humor at all, but I did see the absolutely beautiful struggle between what is fantasy and what is real. And maybe that’s the point.
    Romance novels are fantasy. When I was young, differentiating between the fairytale romances and reality were a struggle. I was like the Japanese wife asking her husband to “say nice things like they do in the books” and despairing when I didn’t get those words. But I learned, as it seemed everyone of the readers portrayed in the film, that reality is different. Yes, I do want a little of the romance I see in these books, but real life doesn’t have linear plot and happy endings. It’s much more challenging.
    Yet, I see that the romance books have given something to each of those women and the male author who wrote them. A purpose? Companionship? An escape? All of the above.
    Like the books I release, once they are in the hands and minds of the reader, they become something else, something better than I intended.
    In the end, I sensed that even the filmmakers themselves changed their POV. Maybe I’m giving them too much credit, but I believe they set out to make us laugh and instead, made us think.

  31. Kat
    Jul 22, 2012 @ 20:38:53

    I wonder if maybe watching this with a particular type of audience affected the experience. I watched it online (it’s available freely to Australian viewers via SMH TV — fyi to Aussie DA readers) and while I knew some romance readers would have a problem with it because of the stereotypes and unfounded claims about the effect or romance novels on readers, it didn’t strike me as being deliberately set up to mock either romance readers or the documentary subjects, except in the case of the cover model.

  32. Guilty Pleasures « Undead Studies
    Jul 22, 2012 @ 22:59:16

    [...] or desperate for romantic attention, and ignores the range of romance readers. There’s one at Dear Author, and one at Smart Bitches, Trashy [...]

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