Here’s a story for you: there’s this twenty-something girl—let’s call her Jane Everygirl. Jane lives in a major metropolitan city, which more than makes up for her slightly-less-than-glamorous job. She is funny and clumsy, and by clumsy, I mean that Jane occasionally trips over her own feet in way that’s still cute enough to attract James Toogoodtobetrue, her hot neighbor over in Apartment 6B. James is smart and just a little too successful (and did I mention that’s he’s uber hot?). “I can’t believe my luck!” Jane says wistfully to her friends Suzie Hasitall and Kate Rollswiththepunches over drinks, “He’s just so perfectly amazing!” Cue Jane’s daydream about their classic wedding and blond-haired future children.
Here’s where the story takes a twist (hint: it’s not really a twist at all). James Toogoodtobetrue does something dumb that proves exactly why he just can’t be trusted. In to sweep up the pieces is Charlie Obliviouslycute; he’s the shy guy who’s been lingering in the margins the entire time, gorgeous and secretly harboring the gosh darn sweetest crush on Jane Everygirl. He’ll stand there, looking at his feet, and say something like, “Jane, I love the way you always eat your pancakes with a spoon/pronounce your “j”s like “g”s/cry when you see pink balloons!” Fill in the blank with whatever annoying quirk it is that is supposed to make Jane endearing (preferably something that no one actually cares about). Suddenly, Jane Everygirl is now Jane Charliesgirl, and they’re dreaming together about their blond-haired children.
In a recent article for The Atlantic “Chick Lit is Dead, Long Live Farm Lit,” Emily Matchar argues that these types of books, with their “hot pink covers featuring martini glasses and Manolos,” are a dying—if not, dead—breed. Replacing them, Matchar writes, is a new genre of farm lit books, where Jane Everygirl and her fellow archetypes abandon Manhattan “in favor of slower, more rural existences, scrappily learning to raise goats on idyllic Vermont farms…instead of pining after Mr. Big, they’re falling for the hunky farmer next door.”
Maybe chick lit as it was originally conceived in the early nineties is no longer the chick-lit-du-jour, but it’s certainly not dead. Replacing Jane Everygirl with Jane Farmgirl and relocating her to upstate New York or a sleepy beach town on the coast doesn’t change the basic structure of these plots or hide the fact that the genre as a whole does a lot of generalizing about women’s experiences.
According to the most reliable of sources, Wikipedia, the term “chick lit” originated as slang for “female literary tradition,” eventually coming to stand for a kind of second-wave Feminist understanding of the female experience. It’s a genre that’s home to many famous and well-loved books: Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic series, Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada, and Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, among others.
Let’s talk about the term “chick lit.” The implications of this categorization are problematic for so many reasons, but here are my top three: 1) By branding itself as “chick lit,” the genre lumps all women together, never accounting for diversity of experience; 2) For a genre called “chick lit,” the books that belong to it certainly revolve a lot around men and; 3) By naming one particular type of genre as “chick lit,” there’s a subtle (or maybe not-so-subtle) snub that other literature is not for women.
Chick lit is the women’s genre, right? Wrong. I doubt that all women like reading these types of books. These books are filled with cookie-cutter women: oftentimes young, white, average-sized women who have large enough salaries for it to not be a prominent factor in the book’s plot. Occasionally Jane Everygirl will gripe about her rent or having to use mismatched dishes, but when’s the last time a chick lit novel featured a heroine who was poor or living below the poverty line? Rarely do these books feature women of color or women who identify as LGBTQ. We almost never read about heroines who are in the Peace Corp, women who are running the magazine for which Jane Everygirl works, or women who are struggling with balancing work and home life. Chick lit very rarely features women who are marginalized or who are in high positions of power. Somehow these experiences don’t scream, “Beach read!” and are therefore discounted as light-hearted and fun. Ironically, making the chick lit heroines as “average” as possible in order to appeal to a wider reach of readers only limits the genre. If chick lit were really a genre for women, then it would at least pretend to appeal to a range of women’s experiences.
And then there’s this issue: for a genre proclaiming to be all about women’s experiences, there is sure a lot of talk about men in these books. The women that populate the pages of chick lit books are usually smart and fairly successful (if a little boring). But they are not independent. As much as it takes independence to live alone in Manhattan or on a farm (if you’re reading Matchar’s version of chick lit) milking goats, these women are always pining after men, convinced that their lives will be complete when they find “the one.” Frustratingly, these women will often be mildly attracted to every man that comes across her way in the book. Why do the women in chick lit books fall apart at the first sight of any guy with dark hair and rolled-up shirtsleeves? Besides making the assumption that all women are attracted to the same two archetypal men (James Toogoodtobetrue and Charlie Obliviouslycute), chick lit books perpetuate the false idea that women lose control when confronted by these men (or all heterosexual men). The larger problem is that snagging Mr. Hotstuff is often the climax of the book (no pun intended). Newsflash, Jane: finally hooking up with him doesn’t mean that all of your other problems are solved or that they magically disappear. These books make it hard to believe that women care about things other than men.
Let’s not forget that chick lit is marketed as literature for women, by women. What does that mean for all of the other books floating around out there? Are women not meant to relate to the themes that crop up in Emerson’s poetry, Stoppard’s plays, Zadie Smith’s novels, and Tom Clancy’s books? Come on now. I learned more about myself from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried than from Emily Giffin’s Something Borrowed, and that book is about War! This is not to deny that some books will resonate differently with certain kinds of audiences, but The Great Gatsby is just as much for women as is The Devil Wears Prada. Chick lit presents a limited scope of what kind of material women are capable of reading: light, fluffy books filled with less-than-complex issues that can be read on the beach and then forgotten about. For a genre with roots in second-wave Feminism, it doesn’t have a lot of faith in women’s abilities to do much, be it the reader or main character.
And yet I keep reading these books, and so do thousands of other women, and it’s evidenced in the fact that writers keep churning out these nondescript books every other month. I understand that by buying these books, I’m only perpetuating the existence of a genre that I think is mediocre, but I don’t necessarily want to advocate for the disappearance of these books altogether. What I don’t understand is the necessary existence of the term “chick lit”—why can’t we just stick the books under the “Fiction” section and call it a day? Sure, it doesn’t alleviate the fact that these books don’t do a lot to advance the modern feminist plight, but it’s certainly a start.