By Harleen Kaur Bagga
Edited by Sanchita Malhotra
The genre of chick-lit has endured its share of critical debates and discussions over the past two decades. A nebulous site of contestations, it has been marked by some as a fun and light genre while also being subjected to incensed scrutiny by others. It is all said to have started with Helen Fielding’s 1996 novel Bridget Jones’ Diary. The ballooning popularity of the modern predominantly white heterosexual middle-aged woman – informed by postfeminism to some extent, and exhibiting intelligence, success, a very active interest in shopping and pursuing a love-interest, along with an explicit assertion of her sexuality – marked this particular category. A very “real” character, the woman here takes control of her life, calls the shots while taking major life-decisions and is generally pleasing to the eye, albeit is presented as body-conscious most of the time.
Sharing an equal claim in the many contradictory responses that delineate the plot are the book-covers. Most of the book-jackets are “girly” – portraying the return of the pink with a vengeance. In a 2007 article in The New York Times, Maureen Dowd claims to have been “accosted by a sisterhood of cartoon women, sexy string beans in minis and stilettos, fashionably dashing about book covers with the requisite urban props — lattes, books, purses, shopping bags, guns and, most critically, a diamond ring.” She goes on to say that “The blood-red high heel ending in a devil’s pitchfork on the cover of the Lauren Weisberger best seller might as well be driving a stake through the heart of the classics.”
Hence, it becomes important to continue an enquiry into why the genre has been slashed so venomously by so many. After all, every genre, irrespective of the media-form, is a motley of the good and the bad. From science-fiction to drama to metaphysical reflections on life, each compartment survives its share of the exceedingly enlightening and the traumatically terrible. Then why is it that chick-lit is something described as a “guilty” pleasure by even its most loyal supporters?
Most of the feminist claims are based on the idea that these writings are suffused with normative ideals of beauty and femininity, with an increased focus on the body as a source of anxiety as well as power, displaying the ever-prevalent trope of self-surveillance. They project false scenarios of empowerment and change because ultimately, in most of the cases, the woman finally settles down if not in a marriage, then at least in a propitious relationship.
From other avenues come allegations of the genre not dealing with the real issues faced by women and a hyperbolic presentation of only some aspects of the female figure’s life. In this way, chick-lit comes to get defined under the lowbrow literature category as opposed to the highly intellectual and enlightening highbrow pieces. The present-day distinction between “popular culture” and “high culture” did not really exist until more than a century ago. However, a clear “cultural hierarchy” (seeLawrence W. Levine) can be glimpsed with the escalating vertical arrangement of cultural products.
Yet, popular belief that chick-lit as a genre is all fluff with no value, indulged in by writers because of the easy money-making enterprise is not quite true. Helen Fielding and Sophie Kinsella, immensely popular representatives of the genre, have often been questioned about the reasons they write chick-lit despite having pursued studies at Oxford and being so highly educated.To this, Kinsella replied, “You see, I think there’s two things. You can be highly intelligent, and also ditzy and klutzy. You can be unable to cook, you can like lipstick. And I think it’s more realistic to represent women having all these facets, than to say, OK, you’re intelligent, so I’ve got to write you as all competent, which I think is an unfair ideal. To have someone who never makes a mistake, never finds her personal life in disarray, never worries about work-life balance? I think that would be unreal. What I’m writing is real” (The Guardian, 12 February 2012).
Moreover, Fielding claims that her readers connected with Bridget because she unwittingly tapped into “the gap between how people feel they are expected to be on the outside and how they actually feel inside” (The Guardian, 20 December 2013). Thus, it can be argued that every media-form – books, movies, advertisements – does reflect and construct society in a way. Chick-lit as a genre, then illustrates the gendered expectations in society and how they are being continually negotiated. The best thing about the genre is the feel-good factor, the way it makes you completely identify with the characters, participating in their lives and vicariously learning from their experiences. Therefore, what is required now is an elimination of the “guilt” from the pleasure along with a dismissal of the “chick” (quite a derogatory and objectifying term) from the “lit”.