Feminism and Chick Lit: Can They Be Friends?

I am a feminist. I have no shame, reluctance or hesitation in saying this. I heard an alarming stat recently: Few Identify As Feminists, But Most Believe In Equality Of Sexes.

Wait… what? I’m lost. Apparently a lot of people don’t understand what feminism means. It’s definition time.

  • feminism: the doctrine advocating social, political, and all other rights of women equal to those of men.

Cool. Sounds good to me. Caitlin Moran‘s husband put it best: feminism is about being nice to everybody. Plain and simple.

I loved the brilliant documentary Miss Representation. It opened my eyes to a lot of things. I can say with confidence that it changed my view of the world. One of the things it discusses is how society teaches women how they should act, think and look by a very young age.

For instance: at seven years old, roughly the same number of boys and girls say they want to be president. By age 15, the number of girls who still say they’d like to be president drops dramatically compared to boys. Why? Because girls aren’t seeing many women in positions of political power. (Mad love for Hillary Clinton. Just throwing that out there.) So, girls see these positions us unattainable for themselves.

But what does this have to do with books?

I adore funny women’s fiction. If you Google that phrase, you get books known under the “chick lit” label. Ipso facto, I like chick lit. It’s my big, bad, dark secret I’m trying to embrace. Here’s a definition of chick lit I found online:

  • Chick lit is genre fiction which addresses issues of modern womanhood, often humorously and lightheartedly. (Wikipedia)

 

feminist-chicklitThis is likely the kindest definition I could find. Then there’s this one: “fluffy books about marriage-obsessed women with a penchant for shoes.” This makes me wince. Mostly because if you go to Google Images and search for “chick lit,” you are bombarded with pink covers featuring shoes, boots, shopping bags, long skinny legs and sassy dresses. And, oh, did I mention shoes? They’re generally identical.

And just like those young girls not seeing women in political power, a lot of these novels featuring adult women on the covers are giving the wrong idea about what adult life is like for a woman: i.e. to be successful, you have to be fashionable, fabulous and drink cocktails in NYC. Oh, and you have to get the guy in the end.

Keep in mind, I’m being very, very general here.

Chick lit still sells like hot cakes, even though the trend has waned slightly in the past few years. I admit to devouring a lot of candy-colored fiction books because I find some of them incredibly witty and entertaining. Some in the literary world say they are predictable, gushy and formulaic. Brain sludge in novel form. But I really don’t think reading a book for entertainment is so bad.

There have been some people who have trashed the chick lit label because it doesn’t show women in the best light. We look a bit shallow – obsessed with getting the guy and the right pair of shoes. I love you, chick lit, but I have to be picky when it comes to which ones I read.

size14isnotfateitherI’ve recently fallen in love (and I mean big time) with Meg Cabot’s “Heather Wells” series. The series is hilarious, clever, and Heather is trying to get her career back on track. Plus, she’s not slender like a lot of chick lit characters. Yes, there is a romantic subplot, but it’s far from the focus of the series. I like that it deals with serious subject matter (murder mysteries!) but in a clever way. She is a career girl who doesn’t work in fashion and isn’t dying to try on the newest pair of Jimmy Choos.

With that being said, I am fully aware ‘feminist’ doesn’t mean ‘anti-feminine.’ (I hope I’m not going to be misconstrued here.) I’m also not an enemy to traditional domestic activities: I love sewing and I bake cookies once in a while. I’m just saying… there are a lot more women out there who don’t care about clothes and fashion, and they deserve to be featured in chick lit novels too.

An article was recently published on AAUW.org about chick lit and feminists. The writer of this totally knows where I’m coming from.

These protagonists are usually independent, living in a city, and interestingly enough, decidedly not feminists. [Stephanie] Harzewski finds that while protagonists are usually sleek consumers, older women who identify as feminists are depicted as Birkenstock-wearing, anti-shaving radicals. Feminists become stereotypes that contrast with the more modern protagonists (with a few exceptions).

Why is that? Harzewski explains that feminism and feminist issues are not considered happy or, well, funny. Feminist and funny are still seen by most as at odds.

Is the world ready for feminist chick lit? I certainly hope so, because I haven’t given up on the genre. I think the range of characters in these books need to be expanded – perhaps, then, the genre will regain the respect it deserves. Part of the responsibility has to go to the publisher too, as the way they are marketed has a lot to do with it.

And for God sake. Let’s also do something about those pink book covers!

Do you know of any chick lit reads featuring an empowered female character? I’d love to know about them!

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