Blond hair, teased into a glamorous pile on top of her head, with curls tumbling around her ears, and framing her face. Long-legged and slender-waisted, clad in a slim skirt and balanced on pencil heels – the heroine in each one of the six stories compiled in the Valentine Picture Story Library, fits the fantasy/stereotype of another era. One where all the women, with their immaculate hair and Jessica Rabbit figures, lounged about in impossibly glamorous clothes, swilling martinis and smoking cigarettes out of two inch-long holders (or maybe not).
All the men seemed to have been formed by a cookie cutter too. Square-jawed and dark haired, with athletic bodies modestly clad in well-cut trouser suits, although there was a hint of rakishness in the cut of their belted trench-coats, the way they bit their cigars, tilted their hats just so and downed one peg of neat scotch after another. Very Jon Hamm from Mad Men.
And just as these men and women seem like they were all cut out of the same sheet of paper, so do their stories seem to come from the same limited imagination. Tall, dark and handsome Gary Stu and blonde, chic and slim Mary Sue are in love with each other. The love story is progressing fine, until they come up against a major hurdle – usually in the form of a financial obligation or an uncongenial relationship. A misunderstanding ensues, there’s a temporary estrangement, but then all ends well with a kiss and a fade-out.
I don’t generally go for these stories. Sure, I admit, I read my share of Mills & Boons, with their salacious covers and heavy panting on the inside pages. In fact, when I was in college, reading a hot Doctor-Nurse story or the tale of the headstrong heiress who is tamed by the burly gameskeeper, was a good way to unwind, when preparing for the final exams. But since I left college, I haven’t picked up a hectic romance novel.
And then one day, about a month or so back, I saw a copy of Valentine Picture Story Library: full of just the kind of stories that once made schoolgirls blush (although now, they would need something a lot stronger; perhaps a sex tape?). As far as I can gather, Picture Story Library had regular issues, with different themes – Doctor-Nurse, Businessman-Secretary, and so on. The one that I bought is titled True Love and has, as the blurb on the cover states, “six dramatic picture story romances, inspired by classic songs from the ‘50s and ‘60s”. These songs include Elvis Presley’s Treat Me Nice, Cliff Richards’ Livin’ Lovin’ Doll and No Turning Back, Russ Conway’s You Made Me Love You, Pat Boone’s Say It With Music and Adam Faith’s What Do You Want.
But don’t be misled by the song titles. They have little to nothing to do with the stories. Livin’ Lovin’ Doll is about a rebellious young teenager who comes to stay with her older cousin after she’s orphaned. She dresses provocatively, drinks and smokes, gets up to foolhardy pranks and even tries to seduce her cousin’s very attractive fiancé. What Do You Want is about a pair of twin sisters, one of whom is a movie star, exchanging places because the movie star sister has had enough of fame and just wants a regular vacation. Naturally, their little ruse confuses everyone, movie fans, to co-actors and directors to even their respective boyfriends. All the stories are similarly fluffy and frivolous: “very light, attractive reading” as Jeeves would say.
But I didn’t really pick up this book for the stories. What really drew me in were the illustrations, which truly are beautiful. Of course, it’s impossible to anyone in real life to be quite as attractive as the people in these stories. But they’re so wonderful to look at – the women with their full lips, thick eyelashes and long, slender fingers, and the men with their Gregory Peck jawlines and intense eyes. Just reading this book was like stepping into a time-machine (please forgive the cliché. It’s 1 am). There are vintage Cadbury chocolate ads, pictures of the era’s heart-throbs Elvis and gang, not to mention the fact that they all give such a great glimpse into the social mores of the time. The protagonists are invariably all white. Almost all the women have ‘gender-appropriate’ jobs like teaching or stenography or working in a library, and the one woman who dares to dream of being a successful novelist, finds that her ambition has driven the love of her life away from her. It’s all so quaint and last-century, that even I didn’t feel offended by the content.
I mean, what is the point, really? Getting mad about gender stereotypes and racial blindness in comic books from another era is just as pointless as getting annoyed by the stereotypes in Enid Blyton books. PC fanatics try to make the contents in these well-beloved books more appropriate for our highly sensitive era, and those of us who grew up reading these stories feel offended. After all, just because all the French girls in Blyton’s books are sneaky little liars, didn’t make us think that real French girls were the same way. We just enjoyed the stories and the adventures of the characters and these offered a great chance to escape into another world.