Sometimes I have to brace myself so that my eyes don’t roll so far back in my head that I fall backwards upon hearing another dude malign E.L. James’s trilogy (oops, I mean quartet) of novels. Just a note that this defense is not a list of reasons why I like Fifty Shades of Grey. I find the endless Feminist critiques to be profoundly resonant and am not here to prove otherwise. However, I’m always interested in hearing from Feminists who defend the series and/or author. One of the most compelling commentaries comes from this article:
It’s easy to hate on Fifty Shades now – like Twilight, it’s a sloppy romance with some problematic relationship bits that has gotten absolutely *crucified* by public opinion. Hating on Fifty Shades, and Twilight, and whatever comes next, is really damn easy.
But I have to say, it really bothers me. Because both of these franchises got extraordinarily popular because women loved them. Overwhelmingly these audiences have been women. And bashing, ridiculing, and mocking the fantasies of millions of women feels really not cool to me….
It’s worth questioning ourselves when we’re so ready to write off something completely that is primarily female-centric and with a predominantly female audience. I am in no way an apologist for James’s disparaging depiction of some very lurid and troubling power dynamics, liberal/offensive interpretations of consent, and what many argue is dreadful writing (though this critique always bothered me since this is subjective–what are you people reading that is so masterful and superior?). However, it it often books, movies, and TV shows made for women and (sometimes) by women that are easiest to dismiss for reasons we attribute to some assumed common understanding of ‘quality’ or hazy, invisible, preselected criteria that make dishonorable and unscrupulous white male anti-heroes like Walter White, Don Draper, and Tony Soprano the standard of fictional excellence. Without going down the rabbit hole of a Feminist rant, I’m going to rank in descending order the awesomeness that comes along with great Chick Lit so that we can all step back and think about why “girly” stuff is not just great, but really, really fantastic, beloved, and necessary. Before we begin, I’d love to cite Wikipedia’s definition of Chick Lit because it’s just the best:
Chick lit is genre fiction which addresses issues of modern womanhood, often humorously and lightheartedly. The genre became popular in the late 1990s, with chick lit titles topping bestseller lists and the creation of imprints devoted entirely to chick lit. Although it sometimes includes romantic elements, chick lit is generally not considered a direct subcategory of theromance novel genre, because the heroine’s relationship with her family or friends is often just as important as her romantic relationships.
Also note that men are lowest on the following list because they should be the least important in an iteration on great Chick stuff but are often required in functional male/female romances. Like Wikipedia says, Chicks have family and friends too.
10. Alpha heroes – It is occasionally a blessed relief to step into a story where the the dude just knows what he wants. There are no confusing games or big misunderstandings; generally, they relentlessly pursue their desires with pretty narrow-minded precision, and it’s just relaxing.
9. Beta heroes – To me, these are more desirable in a novel. The definition from Book Riot:
Betas are usually a more mild-mannered type of hero. No bursts of unwarranted jealousy from these guys. For the most part, they’ve got their stuff together, and their relationship with the heroine is more complementary instead of built on constant conflict. Betas are comfortable with themselves and where the heroine is at in her life. They’re just sweet, considerate guys who you want to bring home to mom and dad.
I guess depending on your life experience you could see this type of guy as equally as fantastical or unlikely as an alpha hero.
8. Lessons learned/humility – Because we live in a sexist society, men too are often subject to crushing social pressure to be ‘masculine’ which for some odd reason equates to ‘unemotional,’ ‘strong,’ and ‘tough.’ Women are socialized to be the opposite and can weep about whatever they want. I’m not saying this is appropriate and women should capitalize on these stereotypes; it is not as if weeping and having periods is winning us any points with ignorant bigots everywhere anyway. But it does allow more latitude in Chick Lit to make mistakes, talk about them, and learn from them. There is a certain vulnerability that women are allowed, and this can make great Chick Lit incredibly rewarding.
7. Laughter – Everyone who is anyone knows that Jennifer Crusie has the market cornered on this, but I would argue that incredibly hilarious female voices are everywhere. Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Meg Cabot, and my recent favs, bloggers Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan, are some of my favorites. Women don’t always take themselves seriously because if they did, they’d go bonkers.
6. Inspiration – I had a very tacit, lukewarm relationship with historical fiction until I read Outlander and found myself (rather absurdly but HEY YOU NEVER KNOW) inspired to be a nurse and/or time traveler just like Claire Randall. Similarly, reading Stephanie Perkins’s Anna and the French Kiss and its subsequent two follow-up novels had me googling frantically “ways to work in Paris for a short time” so that I could revisit the feelings these books inspired. The article I linked to above from my blog was my very first post here and largely outlines what motivated me to start writing so that I could discuss in great depth the incredible inspiration I felt for weeks after reading those books; they are some of the most Chick Lit-iest reading I’ve ever done in my life.
5. Adventure – Chicks have blown it out of the water with this in the past few years. Seriously. Whether it is Katniss, Tris, Hermione, Lisbeth, or Claire, for some odd reason, society has cashed in on the female warrior. Even though they are mostly white adventurers, this is a huge shift in mainstream media and books in thinking about who is powerful and why.
4. Female friendship – I don’t consider myself an expert in, well, anything really, but I like to think that my 28 years as a woman and 7 years as a teacher have all qualified me to say that female friendships IRL are fraught. There are a lot of messages that are given to young girls about how we should be competitive and unsupportive if we want to get the guy or the promotion or whatever it is that we want. Girl-on-girl bullying is horrendous. Thank goodness for Chick Lit that just *gets* the importance of depicting functional, reciprocal, and healthy female friendship. Two books I’ve read that do a fantastic job of this are Cinder by Marissa Meyer or Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. A book like The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is another wonderful example, but I fear it’s one of those more disparaged and relegated to the bad, ugly Chick Lit shelf because of its cotton candy, overly feminine-like packaging. Don’t make this mistake; these girls’ friendships are incredible.
3. Competence – Sarah Wendell often promotes Julie James’s books as being “competence porn,” which means all the characters (male and female alike) are good at what they do and enjoy their jobs. Throughout a lot of Chick Lit, readers often go on a journey with other women in career-centric stories, and this is fun. Like it was mentioned earlier, this can provide inspiration and further modeling on different career paths that ladies don’t get a lot of access to in mainstream media. In TV and movies, I most often see women in either very conventional life paths (like nurse, teacher, housewife) or something super extreme (prison or outrageous political role like this or this). It’s so chill to read about Beth Fremont in Rainbow Rowell’s Attachments just working in an office, bonding with her friend through writing, and also falling in love. Women don’t always have to be superheroes or damsels in distress – they can just be competent, middle-class, and cool, and this characterization is a frequent hallmark of Chick Lit.
2. Diversity – Some of the smartest, coolest women and Chick Lit writers around are talking about how to diversify what gets published, and it’s so phenomenal. At the Romance Writers of America conference this year, there were entire panels and sessions dedicated to discussing how to increase access and sharing tips on writing about women of color and characters who identify as LGBTQ. Alisha Rai killed it with her Storify of one of these panels, and Jenn Northington from Book Riot killed it further with her kickass summary that included a lot of awesome lessons on how to write and market diverse content. I’m not saying that dudes don’t talk at all about making books more multicultural and inclusive, but women writing Chick Lit now seem to care a lot and are on Twitter talking about it every day. Like, all the time. One of the coolest things to come out of the past few years is the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign and organization that is led (not exclusively but noticeably) by women.
And finally, 1. Intelligence/sass – I love nothing more than an entire book featuring an unadulterated female voice. Whether I am seeing myself in her voice or am experiencing the voice of another women I can love, empathize with, or get inspired by, I am genuinely fulfilled by the sass, self-deprecation, and ingenious cultural critiques that wouldn’t be possible if airtime was shared with a male counterpart. Chick Lit is a safe space where women can talk about their bodies, their fears, their successes, and their often hilarious observations of social norms. The hallmark of a truly great Chick Lit book is sassy commentary, and it never, ever gets boring to me.
Men, if you’re still reading this, do not mansplain to me why Fifty Shades of Grey is offensive to women. There is a very real reason why I don’t take to Twitter or my blog about the upsides and downsides for the Black community regarding shows like Empire, Scandal, and How to Get Away with Murder because indeed, I am not Black, and I am not qualified to make those judgments. I appreciate your concern for our delicate sensibilities, but I think we can figure out our feelings about our own power (or sometimes lack thereof) in pop culture. In the meantime, people can carry on reading what they want to read, and never forget what always remains the top-selling genre in all of publishing. #LongLiveChickLit