Where Are All the Chick-Lit Feminists?April 17, 2013
Summer is coming and with it the onslaught of chick-lit “beach reads” targeted at women. While everyone surely has different opinions and ideas about the genre, it never hurts to take a moment to critically look at how characters, especially female protagonists, are portrayed in these popular books.
Stephanie Harzewski is a lecturer in the English Department at the University of New Hampshire and is the author of Chick Lit and Postfeminism. When she received her AAUW American Fellowship in 2004, Harzewski was in the midst of the research that became her book. Since then, Harzewski has served on the selection panels for AAUW Career Development Grants and this year chaired the arts and humanities subpanel for those grants. She says, “Reading the grant applications in the thick of winter in New Hampshire and learning about some of the amazing women out there and their unique projects in the judging process are invigorating and help me be proactive about my current projects.”
Speaking of her own work, Chick Lit and Postfeminism traces the genre from the 1950s through the 1990s, concentrating on literature written between 1996 and 2006. In all those years, chick lit’s popularity has only grown. “With its happy ending and escapist possibilities, it is not surprising it has thrived in the Great Recession,” says Harzewski. The current chick-lit genre features female protagonists, often in their 20s or 30s, on quests for self-identity, increasingly after a divorce or losing a job. While love remains central in the quest narrative, marriage is not always the end goal these days, though most novels do end either in marriage or in some romantic union hinting at marriage.
These protagonists are usually independent, living in a city, and interestingly enough, decidedly not feminists. 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. “Yes, feminism has spawned some humorous catchphrases — Australian writer-activist Irina Dunn’s ‘A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle’ — but feminist awareness issues like bride burning, domestic violence, sex slave trafficking, are not exactly rich fodder for jokes. Feminist and funny are still seen by most as at odds.”
When chick lit and its readers break from the well-off, educated, heteronormative city setting, they tend to look to the bastion of romance and finding one’s authenticity, Jane Austen’s work. “The phenomenon of ‘Austenmania’ and its genteel modesty derives from some outstanding film adaptations but more significantly offers a counter paradigm to today’s Facebook posts, tweets, and what my students describe to me as a hookup culture. The balls, chaperoned walks, and calling cards [emphasize] a prudent courtship contrast with sexting, online matchmaking, and speed or video dating.”
Harzewski has made a career out of dissecting the books she unabashedly enjoys. Her advice for others? “Tenacity, resilience, and joie de vivre are more important than technical talent. Life goes by so quickly that it is worth it to pursue a project or career goal for which you have the most enthusiasm: With some trial and error, you have the best chance for the peace of mind that comes from making authentic decisions.”
AAUW knows how important it is to read feminist books with positive portrayals of women all year long. So the next time, and there will be a next time, we curl up with a heart-warming chick lit book, let’s take a cue from Harzewki and consider how the protagonist is portrayed, what her real goals are, and then, for fun, how we would change the story, the protagonist, and even the love interest.
What is your favorite feminist, diverse, or nontraditional romance book?
Stephanie Harzewski’s fellowship was sponsored by the Adaline S. Gilstrap/Rocky Mountain Region American Fellowship endowment and the AAUW Sarasota (FL) Branch American Fellowship endowment.
This post was written by Fellowships and Grants Intern Emily McGranachan.