Chick Lit: Harmless Fun or Bad for Feminism?

In the UK especially, the showbiz news this week has been focused on the latest “will they, won’t they?” saga. That’s right, Bridget Jones, she of the “absolutely enormous panties,” might be making a fourth appearance on the big screen. Heralded as the original modern female heroine, Bridget was the first fictional character to come close to being honest about the thrills and spills of dating and being a woman in London during the 90’s. Her antics have spawned a widening of the chick lit genre beyond that of the classic trope of heroes saving helpless damsels in distress to its current state, which has room for a variety of expressions of womanhood.

But say the words ‘chick lit’ in certain company and prepare yourself to be greeted with a sneer. The stereotype remains that this is light reading for bored housewives or mindless office drones on the way to work. It’s that guilty pleasure you save for holiday reading when you don’t have to face up to questions from co-workers about why you’re not reading the latest Booker Prize winner. Technically, ‘chick lit’ refers to fiction which “addresses issues of modern womanhood, often humorously and lightheartedly” so why are we inclined to be so dismissive of this genre?

After all, there are shelves groaning with the weight of espionage thrillers but no one even whispers that Tom Clancy novels all have essentially the same plot. Instead, chick lit is picked apart for being repetitive and insubstantial. In some instances, it has even been viewed as anti-feminist as it is argued that the majority of its heroines are focused on perfecting their body image above all else. In a worst-case scenario, they are also obsessed with their latest pair of Manolo Blahniks. It’s more a case of blatant consumerism than anything else. In the latest, most talked about example of chick lit, Fifty Shades of Grey, Anastasia Steele is mostly concerned with how much money Mr Grey has spent on her. Perhaps she could therefore be forgiven for being confused about which type of ‘whip’ Mr Grey was referring to, so focused she is on what type of car he’s bought her. However, in any genre, there’s a range of forms. In chick lit, the worst perpetuates the idea of women as vacuous, insecure, and image obsessed. But at its best, chick lit gives women a form of escapism into a world that is centered on them. Instead of being involved in a heavily patriarchal world where they are in a somewhat imbalanced relationship with men, women in chick lit are the protagonists which is something that surely should be praised.

Yes, some chick lit is too centered on women responding to men. But a larger proportion is about how female friendships underpin women’s lives. For every time a man causes a heartbreak of epic proportions, there is a feisty female best friend who can be relied upon, speaks the truth, and sets the heroine back on her feet. If anything, chick lit and its heroines are reassuring in terms of giving more power to friendships between women; the men are a distraction. While it is a genre of fiction which can be seen as overly simplistic, there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. Not everyone has the capacity to devour Nabokov on a daily basis, and there’s something warm and fuzzy about opening the latest chick lit novel to read about the trials and tribulations of a fictional character’s life. There are some simple pleasures that we shouldn’t feel bad about enjoying. Those ‘damned scribbling women,’ as Nathaniel Hawthorne called 19th-century chick lit writers, should keep on scribbling chick lit. Bridget deserves a noughties successor.

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