Chick Lit, Feminism and the Double Standard

Funny how when it comes to a form like comics being bastardized, Jessa Crispin has no problem broadsiding the critics for declaring a specific genre less than literary. But that apparently isn’t the case when it comes to chick lit. Without citing a single example, Crispin suggests that “chick lit treats women like they’re stupid.” Well, that’s interesting. Because while reading Weiner’s latest, Goodnight Nobody, I didn’t really get the sense that the female characters within its pages were stupid. And while I never really cared for the Bridget Jones books (although I have enjoyed the three Weiner novels that I’ve read), I never got the sense that these novels were contributing to idiotic depictions of women. Unless Crispin somehow believes that any book featuring a professional woman who pursues a relationship or contends with family or pregnancy is dumb (which, interestingly enough, would discount nearly all of the books she links to). Even when certain “chick lit” novels disagreed with me, I nevertheless applauded these books for placing women’s issues to the forefront and having the courage to place these plots within popular literature.

One might dislike the genre of popular literature, but from a feminist perspective, it’s a mistake to dismiss the potential effects of popular art towards pointing out the silent rules and folkways which insist women must act in a certain way.

I think what Weiner is commenting upon in this interview is the double standard. Sure, a popular author like Stephen King can be published in the New Yorker and get mad props from literary maestros. But if a woman is a popular author (like Jennifer Weiner), she’s given the snobbish Sittenfeld-style treatment by her peers. Why is there such a double standard?

In fact, I applaud Weiner for featuring one of the most realistic (and hilarious) sex scenes I’ve read in a novel this year, complete with a woman flustered by her husband’s tired advances and the husband clueless enough to wear nothing but black socks to bed (and let’s face it, men, we’re all guilty of this, even when we’re told not to). I certainly haven’t seen sexual failure presented in such candid terms within a single literary novel I’ve read this year.

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10 Comments

  1. Sometimes, Ed, you really get it right. I agree with both your posts this morning. (That ugly Halloween guy and Jennifer Weiner) When I read Jessa’s remarks, I just got tired. It’s so easy for bloggers to dismiss authors and genres without presenting any argument that supports the claim. There is much to criticize about chick lit — it often is written badly, the plots are predictable, etc. but readers like the genre precisely because the women protagonists ARE ACTUALLY SMARTER THAN ALL THE GUYS IN THE BOOK. And on a day where our flailing president nominates a Supreme Court justice who thinks women have to get their husband’s permission for an abortion, who will solidify all the right-wing, anti-female laws the radical right has been pushing for the last 20 years, women of the world have to look for affirmation of their human worth whereever they can get it. And for the record, I thought the movie, “In Her Shoes,” based on Weiner’s novel, was an excellent film, good for everyone, not just women.

  2. Ed, are you freaking KIDDING me with this?

    Weiner’s argument that women who attack her work, or her genre, are guilty of anti-feminism is the most self-serving, disingenuous crap I’ve ever heard. Jessa, I’m sure, could give plenty of examples of how chick lit treats women like they’re stupid – it’s BOTH readers and characters and hell, you could write thousands of pages on the subject – but I’m sure she’s got better things to do.

    Weiner’s constant whinging is getting really old. She’s making a fortune by catering to populist taste in the most calculating way, and she wants literary respectability too? She should just shut up and count her money.

    (Also, can you explain to me what you mean in your sentence beginning “One might dislike…” ? I’m baffled – are you suggesting that, in the case of chick lit, mass art is illuminating hidden repressive forces in women’s lives?!)

  3. Emma: I think Weiner’s decrying those who casually dismiss chick lit without even bothering to read it. And certainly we have a case here again (from Jessa this time) where chick lit is dismissed as “dumb” without a single supportive example. Even you, Emma, have failed to offer an example as to how “chick lit” treats women as if they’re dumb. (Which mystifies me further, because I consider you to be a solid thinker.)

    So please enlighten me. Because it seems the hip thing to do these days to declare “chick lit” bad or “dumb” without properly analyzing it, let alone offering a constructive reply. What makes these dismissals any different from a fundamentalist declaring same-sex marriages “immoral” without considering that they might contribute to the economy or preserve family values? (Or for that matter, a liberal declaring religion bad because it does not appeal to him, little considering that some church activities are oriented around chairty work or that churches are often the bases for neighborhood communities.)

    If it’s Weiner’s money that’s the issue, then I don’t think this is a fair criticism. Because we’re talking about the books here, not how much Weiner is worth. If you truly think her books are terrible and indeed don’t deserve a single shred of respect, then I challenge you (or any other detractor) to tell me why. I’m genuinely curious.

    Personally, as I alluded to above, I suspect that this is more an issue of “popular vs. literary.” In which case, I ask again. Why does Stephen King get a fair pass but Jennifer Weiner doesn’t?

  4. Actually, this article at PopMatters would suggest that King really doesn’t get a “fair pass.”

  5. Maud: I beg to differ. That article offers plot archetypes and extremely nonspecific narrative identifiers. But it still doesn’t tell me why chick lit is bad and it makes generalizations about plots, rather than dwelling on specific examples (“signifcant prototypes” don’t cut it, give me multiple examples and I’d be willing to consider the argument more seriously), and it doesn’t tell me anything about the books in questions. But I’m not sure if crucifying plot really translates into crucifying a book (or even a group of books). By that token, we’d have to eviscerate the often plotless postmodernists.

    If Emma doesn’t care for the plots or popular lit in general, that’s one thing. But I still don’t see any qualifying issue here over how any of this makes women dumb, or how any of these female characters are dumb, even if their stories end happily. And besides, everyone knows that there are only five basic plots in the world.

  6. The question of whether Stephen King gets a “fair pass” but Weiner doesn’t depends, obviously, on who you talk to.

    It seems there are two issues here. First there’s the question of how badly written the books are. This has nothing to do with sex/gender, it’s a matter of aesthetics. I could recite countless examples of the formulaic, inelegant, predictable nature of most chick lit – including Weiner’s – but I really can’t be bothered (and some can be seen in the piece Maud linked to). What people choose to write and read is of course up to them but Weiner’s attempt to attribute her lack of critical acclaim to sexism or jealousy or whatever ludicrous drum she happens to be banging on a given day is just deluded.

    The second issue is a more complex and contentious one, and it has to do with the messages/themes/moral tone of such novels. The majority of them seem to be no more than modern day fairy tales about finding Mr Right. Again, if people want to be reassured and unchallenged in this way by their reading material, then fine. But let’s not pretend there’s nothing questionable about it from a feminist perspective.

    Something in the Maureen Dowd excerpt in the NYT magazine yesterday is perhaps food for thought. Currently (according, admittedly, to an “informal poll”) 81% of American women who marry take their husband’s name, an increase from 71% in 2000. I can’t help but see the craze for pink books with happy endings involving the heroine falling into the arms of the man of her dreams and this statistic as part of the same trend.

  7. this is stupid

    curtis sittenfeld said that calling something chick-lit was, in a way, like calling someone a slut; she didn’t say anything about chick-lit itself and weiner, like all people who are delusioned, immediately took that as an attack; it’s a kind of patriotism; you must defend your own kind, and it’s retarded

    but how come curtis sittenfeld did not get any snobbish treatment?

    because she writes differently than weiner

    weiner is not sittenfeld

    joy williams doesn’t get the ‘chick-lit treatment’

    only people who write chick-lit get the ‘chick-lit treatment’

    stephen king does not get ‘mad props’

    you always exaggerate

    this isn’t a matter of gender, it’s just a matter that if you write chick-lit people will make chick-lit jokes about you, and who cares; people make suburbia and broken marriage jokes about updike all the time

  8. I have to say that this kind of thing used to make me angry and sad, except for when it made me laugh my ass off at the silliness of it all, but I think now I’m reaching a state of awe: Where does all this hatred for a single genre come from? It takes such energy to hate this much. Imagine, if you channeled this hatred towards chick-lit into something positive, you might take over the world! Or, if not that, you could at least help me take back the White House.

  9. I, for one, am tired of the chick lit bashing. I am a feminist and an activist who believes that entertainment is political, and I write chick lit precisely because I want to wield popular fiction to bring feminism to women who have been socialized to believe all the myths about what feminism is and what it means to be a feminist. The women who attack chick lit authors without making any effort to presume never mind find the feminists among them are further the misogynist agenda to make feminism unattractive to younger women. I have had it with women who would never pick up my book making assumptions about what kind of values and images it promotes and what I stand for politically. And to think, I got a nasty review from Publisher’s Weekly precisely for raising socio-political isues in what the reviewer was expecting to be a mindless beach read so thank you, so-called literary feminist elitists, for having my back. ;^P As the co-founder of an unapologetically feminist nonprofit organization for young women of color in East Harlem, I probably have made more of a contribution to women’s liberation than any of these snobs. And if these words seem harsh, well, why should I be sisterly towards those who would have nothing to do with me based on nothing more than the genre in which I write?

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