Stories with Womxn Protagonists are Considered Chick-Lit Even Though They Deal with Intrinsic Issues Plaguing Women. Why?

By- Stuti Srivastava

The term ‘chick lit’ is used widely in popular speak to refer to literature that focuses on the lives of women, often in a dramatic fashion, focussing mostly on love and romance. ‘Chick lit’ has come to become an important part of pop culture and modern literature. Despite their small target audience, books of this kind have gone on to become international bestsellers, and subsequently have also been adapted for cinema – ‘The Devil Wears Prada’, ‘Me Before You’, ‘Sex and the City’, ‘The Hunger Games.’

The industry of literature, much like the film industry defines itself by genres, the divisions make it easier to follow tropes and stick to specific storylines, dialogues, and graphics, and to appeal to a certain target audience. Chick lit as a separate genre, though, in contrast to popular belief, rarely carries set guidelines. A book series like ‘The Hunger Games’, which weaves the story of power in a dystopian world is termed as ‘chick lit’, and so is the supernatural romance ‘Twilight’ which unfolds in a typical love-story fashion, along with a book like ‘Little Earthquakes’, that brings in the narrative of the challenges of new motherhood. These books have little in common, except the fact that they revolve around and focus on the lives of women.

This intentional grouping together of women-centric books makes a very direct statement. The lives of men are important enough to be read by and appeal to all people, while the lives of women are insignificant and will only ever be consumed by women, themselves. It is a striking commentary on the minds of both the readers and publishers, that a specific male-centric category of literature has never been created. There is no ‘dude lit.’ The lives of men are the normative. Their stories and perceptions of the world carry enough wait to be generalised, while women’s stories are only supposed to appeal to a certain demographic. If the aforementioned books had been about the lives of men, ‘The Hunger Games’ would be action-packed and revolutionary, ‘Twilight’ would be fantasy, and ‘Little Earthquakes’ would be an important piece of drama fiction revolving around fatherhood.

A series like ‘Harry Potter’ that is centred on the life of a male protagonist in a fantasy world with magic and monsters is categorised as important teen-fiction in the fantasy genre. A similar series would be Kami Garcia’s ‘Beautiful Creatures.’ Though it features a central plot of romance, there are also several supernatural elements and an ongoing politics of power, animosity, life and death. Harry Potter finds a place in mainstream literature, but Beautiful Creatures does not. One can find several womxn fans of male-centric books, but there are hardly any men who follow women centric books religiously. This happens because masculinity is universalised, and traditionally ‘feminine’ traits are demonised and belittled. The narrative remains that in order to be empowered, women need to adopt certain masculine roles, which is why women are allowed to envision themselves in places of men, but men are not allowed to be inspired by the actions of a womxn protagonist. Had Harry Potter been about Hermione, wouldn’t its reception have been hugely different?

There is no denying the fact that ‘chick lit’ does carry with it, certain tropes. Most of these are very visible, with a heavy influence of pink graphics, romantic plots or sub-plots, and dialogues which are rather ‘feminised’. This presentation, is also, unnatural. Less than twenty percent of publishers in the industry are women. Effectively, the people writing chick lit may be women, but the market is managed directly by men. The commercialisation of the portrayal of the lives of women, their struggles and journeys come from a male gaze – a gaze which assumes what women think like and would like to see as their representation on paper. The hyper-feminization and patronization of the protagonist and her story is a product of the male perspective of women. The author provides the manuscript, but the pink and glittery covers, the heart-eyed promotion, and tags of ‘chick lit’ and ‘not chick lit’ are decided by the publishers. It is no surprise, hence, that chick lit is snubbed off as childish and unimportant. The very word ‘chick lit’ carries a dismissive connotation, much different from the ‘literary fiction’ or ‘scientific literature.’ There is a reason why normative male-centric literature is nuanced, and women-centric literature is foolish entertainment in popular perception – because men reduce women’s issues and lives to those with secondary importance. Specific adjectives and belittling labels are always acquired by the less powerful, which is why there exist words like ‘woman doctor’, ‘woman soldier’, and ‘woman pilot.’ The term ‘chick lit’ exists because men control the conversation, and are able to relegate certain types of books to the background and fit them into separate moulds, all in a self-important gesture.

An interesting thing to note here would be to note the reception of women-centric books written by men. For instance, a book like ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’, which shows women in a hyper-sexualised space involved in certain violent politics. Though the focus is entirely on women, it still finds a place outside of the ‘chick lit’ genre, solely because of the male gaze that is visibly pervasive in the narrative. An idea of victimhood is prevalent throughout, and it is a man who controls our vision of the women. Something like ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ is also not categorised as chick lit. These are both books written by men, for everyone. But books written by women, are automatically books written only for women. There is a certain fear and detest against feminine tropes and characters. In order to be accepted in mainstream cinema, women characters have to be taken out of traditionally feminine roles and cast into roles that would be attractive to the sexed male gaze. When in supporting roles, there is no need for such actions. As accessories to men, women have to be feminine in the societally-mandated way, and as main characters, they have to act like men all while they are sexualised in several ways. There remains a deep-seated, divisive assumption of gendered preference – action and masculinization of women is universally appealing, but feminine traits in literature are only consumed by women.

There is also a visible difference between the reception of chick flicks directed by men and women. One might compare a book like Nicholas Sparks’s ‘A Walk to Remember’ and John Green’s ‘A Fault in Our Stars’ to Jojo Moyes’s ‘Me Before You’ and Jodi Picoult’s ‘My Sister’s Keeper.’ All of these deal with similar themes of illness, love, death, loss, and are tragic romances. The first two, however, are more traditionally accepted as romance novels, but the other two feature as ‘chick lit.’ An instance like this makes one wonder, wouldn’t ‘Anna Karenina’, ‘Madame Bovary’, ‘Romeo and Juliet’, and ‘Pride and Prejudice’, if written today, be considered ‘chick lit’, and if made into film, be considered ‘chick flicks’? Would they still be considered important literature, studied by scholars around the world, many of whom, are men? It is also specifically important to mention here, that modern retellings of classic novels like ‘Avalon High’ based on ‘King Arthur’, ‘I am Juliet’ based on ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ‘10 Things I Hate About You’ based on ‘Taming of the Shrew’ and ‘Epic Fail’ based on ‘Pride and Prejudice’ were all casted to the box of ‘chick lit’ after they were retold with a focus on modern women, taking the light away from the male protagonists in the original texts. The two Shakespeare retelling tried to put in a certain feminist angle in the films. ‘10 Things I Hate About You’ replayed Katherina as feminist icon who read The Feminine Mystique and gave a new turn to the original character who was only portrayed as a shallow, problematic daughter or wife. ‘I am Juliet’ gave lovelorn Juliet a voice as she struggled to realise her identity in a patriarchal setup and analysed agency and power in a romantic context. As soon as the narrative started to centre around women, the genre changed.

The dichotomy that remains, of the distinction of chick lit and the rest of literature, lies on a very heavy gender binary. It is the same binary that dictates all our lifestyle choices – blue for boys, pink for girls, pants for men and dresses for women, Hotwheels cars and Barbie dolls, science and liberal arts, short hair and long hair. It is a reproduction of the distinction of mind-body, nature-culture, emotion-reason, object-subject, and public-private which demarcates boundaries for men and women, fits them into boxes, and makes male-occupied spaces more significant and generalise masculinity as the normative while making feminity atypical. This is what extends into the sphere of literature, where love and romance are bound to women, and action, mystery and thrill to men.

But ‘chick lit’ doesn’t just deal with romance. If seen superficially, they might seem bound to tropes of love, but women’s cinema has always touched on several issues through stories of love and friendship. Certain gendered issues which are usually experienced largely by women are often trivialised, but these are issues of love, identity, sex, personhood, power, family, and career that deeply affect people in their lives. A book like ‘The DUFF’ is extremely powerful as it tries to crush notions of beauty and deals with fatphobia in a simplistic narrative. ‘Confessions of a Shopaholic’ tries to do away with the binaries of beauty and brains, making a statement about how womxn can choose to adopt mainstream fashion and be focussed on their appearance, all while being good at their jobs, and challenges the age-old concept of ‘women’s vanity.’ Jill Santopolo’s ‘The Light We Lost’ is a brilliant book that deals beautifully with the themes of grief, loss, attachment, and love all while making a political statement about terrorism and its after-effects. Sarah Dessen’s ‘Dreamland’ highlights misogyny, mental abuse and dating violence. As men have trivialised women’s issues and writings through the beginning of time, and they continue to do so, packing all these significant themes into a glittery pink box of ‘chick lit’.

Books centred around women are often judged with two phrases – ‘more than just chick lit’, and ‘just chick lit.’ There are several books that try to break out of the box of ‘chick lit’ by producing narratives that might appeal to men, and in the end, come out as extremely misogynistic and non-sensical. Eradication of gender roles in writing should not mean making a mockery of femininity, and that is what certain generally accepted books do. In its quest to be different, they end up being sexist in the truest sense of the word.

There are many problems with the term ‘chick lit.’ The very existence of the word, in fact, is highly sexist. It adheres strictly to gendered norms and exists because of an unequal distribution of power in the world. Albeit several writings in the ‘chick lit’ genre remain problematic in many senses; they are also often a small bit of genuine representation for women. In any sense, the term must be scrapped first, before moving on to the problems of said representation. Any such representation must first be rid of its oppressive and discriminatory origins and connotations. It is only after that, that further change is to be seen. It is high time, then, for books based on and around women to be called just that, no matter the trope or theme they feature…books.

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