Teening Chick Lit?.
De Montfort University
Commentators on chick lit1 recognise that the content and scope of the novels gathered together under this umbrella category have broadened significantly since the term entered colloquial usage. Chick lit is identified primarily by its audience (mid-twenties to late thirties, middle class, white, single), and its themes—urban lifestyles of contemporary singletons who have difficulty finding true romance in their chaotic, socially-charged lives. Latterly, with sub-categories such as mumlit (henlit), nanny lit, tart noir and widowlit being identifiable, chick lit has expanded to the extent that one could be forgiven for wondering if the epithet has any enduring significance or meaning any more, so wide is its application. In one sense the development of the genre is inevitably linked to the fact that some of its key authors have developed as writers, and as they age their work continues to reflect the concerns of their own generation, so that gradually the fate of love relationships and commitment post-marriage, long-term partnership and/or children becomes foregrounded.
Despite the predictions of numerous commentators in the popular press2, chick lit has not died a death and fewer middlebrow writers since Beryl Bainbridge expend their energies decrying these novels. Now it is a tendency within popular fiction; its signature covers attract a loyal community of readers, just as the Mills and Boon rose did before. I use the word ‘tendency’ advisably here: in an era where the spaces chick lit has invaded become more numerous, it is useful to think about chick lit as a tendency found in popular women’s writing of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century which alerts us to key concerns and themes also to be found in popular culture more generally. One side-effect of the growth in the chick lit brand is that not only has it diversified its themes and key ingredients, but that it has also migrated into teen fiction. In this essay I shall explore some examples of young adult fiction aimed at girls to analyse briefly the effect of the influence of chick lit upon girl’s teen fiction and compare this with an earlier teen classic which was more clearly influenced by the feminism of its day.
The extent to which the term chick lit is one embraced by authors themselves, or a brand imposed upon certain fiction by publishers and proclaimed loudly by the sugary covers which offer the reader quick visual identification of genre, is a question open for debate. This question could equally be levelled at other identifiable genres in the literary marketplace, and some writers become brands in their own right. For example, children’s fiction has been most recently revivified by hugely successful writers such as Jacqueline Wilson and J.K. Rowling. In the case of Wilson, her books are immediately visually recognisable by Nick Sharratt’s accompanying cover illustrations; this look has been translated across media in the BBC’s Tracey Beaker series, which also uses these illustrations in animated sections of the series. Similarly Rowling’s Harry Potter series has achieved a distinctive design solution which migrates into merchandising; the films, too, underscore the books’ successes without seeming to diminish the demand for the novels. Chick lit’s branding allows instant reader identification, promotes star authors and sets up a pact with the consumer of guaranteed satisfaction. Subtextually, the pastel colours offer us a palette more regularly seen on baby clothes and suggest that femininity has been re-commodified, colour coded and softened for a generation of young women distant enough from feminism to feel that this is a new identity they can grasp and belong to. Feminists might, of course, find in the resurgence of pink and other ‘feminine’ fripperies, images retreaded and depoliticised in a world that seems to find no more use for gender politics.
If we accept that all contemporary fiction is produced in a market more often looking for brand (if not author) loyalty, it is inevitable that the teen fiction market, hard pressed by competition with all the other popular cultural outlets that teens have at their disposal, would look for inspiration elsewhere. One of chick lit’s commercial strengths is in identifying a loyal, lucrative and thriving female-only readership, which makes it a model of interest for those aiming to capture the attention of teen female readers who for years have devoured romance. As Ilana Nash observes in her analysis of comic popular cultural narratives of teen life in the twentieth century, the teenage years are a ‘time of subcultural Otherness’ further noting that ‘standing at the crossroads between childhood and womanhood, the teen girl faces Janus-like in both directions’ (Nash 2006: 3;8). What is elsewhere dubbed ‘Chicklit Jr.’ (Johnson 2006: 141–57) exemplifies this Janus-like stance, and the most successful teen books effectively manage this backwards-facing and forward-looking stance by acknowledging that their readers’ knowledge and awareness of adult issues and themes in popular culture may outstrip their ability to deal with them in their own lives.
This essay concerns itself with two examples of contemporary teen romance aimed roughly at 12–15 year olds. It examines the possible similarities between chick lit and its teen counterpart by particular focus on one bestselling landmark text—Meg Cabot’s The Princess Diaries—which itself initiated a series and two spinoff film adaptations (2001;2004)3, and compares it to another extraordinarily successful teen romance published over twenty-five years before, in 1975, and becoming one of the enduring teen girl classics—Forever by Judy Blume. Thirty and more years on, teen readers still hunger for honest accounts of the pitfalls of growing up and ways to understand and manage growing sexual appetites and related romantic yearnings. Chick lit’s own much-vaunted concern with the quotidian, and its specialism in contemporary pop cultural referencing as a means of understanding its heroine’s place in the world is fundamentally compatible with the teen fiction tradition and therefore it might be justifiable to speculate on the possibilities of a seamless and inevitable transition from one genre to the next. Teen girls, in common with single adult women, seem to incite more moral panics and encourage more controversy than their male counterparts. In face of recent alarmist reports about binge drinking, loose moralled young women and continuing high rates of (UK) teenage pregnancy, one might be forgiven for thinking that the passage to more ‘appropriate’ forms of womanhood is society’s greatest challenge.
While chick litters and their publishers can deflect most moral or political criticism by pointing resolutely to the entertainment value of the genre, teen fiction is deemed to have a moral and educative responsibility to its readers, which it falls upon the writers to deliver. While there remain heated debates about the correct ways to educate young adults—particularly in matters of sex and relationships—teen writers are not just able to appeal to the individual tastes of their readers; these novels depend heavily on library (particularly school library) uptake because that is where many young readers first encounter this work. Forever is perhaps unique among bestselling teen fiction for remaining controversial for its sexual content and implied liberal values over thirty years later. Many libraries, in the US at least, made the decision to ban it and some ban it still. My key intention in comparing Blume to Cabot is to analyse two bestselling teen romances published a generation apart, just as previously (Whelehan 2005), I have compared 1970s consciousness raising novels with chick lit to evaluate narrative voice, structure, implied audience and themes. If both spoke to the generation in which they were produced, what do they tell us about interpretations of gender and female sexuality today? 1970s popular women’s novels such as Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying (1973) have been seen as taboo breaking and as offering readers a dialogue with their own contemporary reality or a re-presentation of available selves: Forever achieves this dialogue by being written in the first person from a seventeen-year-old girl’s point of view, but with the reserves of knowledge only available to an older woman. Unlike more recent trends for novels about children surviving damaged or non-standard parent experiences (Jacqueline Wilson being perhaps the most important exponent of this sub-genre of children’s fiction) Blume’s Katherine comes from a loving nuclear family with wise and supportive grandparents still living; her home life represents that of the comfortable middle class and her aspirations are towards higher education.
The paperback version of my 2005 reprint edition of Forever is candy pink with a heart-shaped locked padlock on the front (which appears opened with a key next to it on the back), signifying its romantic content and also retrospectively visually aligning it with the chick lit brand. The cover of The Princess Diaries is mauve with a basic crown shape picked out in gold and embracing the book’s title on the front. All over the rest of the cover, and slightly encroaching on the crown, are tiny cartoonish drawings of perfume bottles, flowers and hearts, sprinkled like confetti, and this template (with the cartoons becoming shoes, or lipsticks and so forth) announces the remaining eight volumes, replacing an earlier cover solution of a drawing of a tall thin girl sporting a tiara. This series, told entirely in the form of journal entries, text messages, emails and instant messaging has structural echoes with key chick lit staples such as Bridget Jones’s Diary, and this mode of narration also allows for the dominant confessional first person voice so popular in chick lit to seem a natural shape for teen romance.
The strapline on several of teen author Rosie Rushton’s novels announce a Jane Austen connection. The Secrets of Love (2005) asks ‘what would happen if you transferred the traumas of teenage love from Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility to the twenty-first century? How would the Dashwood girls fare without the restraints of nineteenth-century England?’ The British writer’s novels have similarly been subjected to the chick lit cover makeover, and her content recalls chick lit authors like Fielding and Melissa Nathan in their use of Austen novels as their inspiration and plot shape. In Rushton’s case, the implication is that Austen’s novel has, at its core, issues which relate easily to teenage concerns and can tell us truths about twenty-first century life. In actuality, the links are superficial and purely plot related—the three sisters and their mother are impoverished as a result of their father’s premature death and because of the existence of his second wife. In addition two older sisters are contrasted by one being mature, conscientious and cautious and the other impetuous and rather selfish.
There has been a tradition in late twentieth century to early twenty-first century teen fiction to write stories which allow heroines to share problems with their readers at the same time as offering consolation that common teenage anxieties about friendship, relationships with parents, school and boyfriends are shared and surprisingly common. The heroine’s blunders and embarrassments can be savoured vicariously by readers who are often at their most vulnerable and self-critical stage, and stories which feature a ‘coming of age’ thread are extremely popular. The Princess Diaries, Forever and The Secrets of Love all feature these themes, but while all allude to sexual relationships and the perils of going the whole way, only Blume has her heroine enjoy a full sexual relationship with her boyfriend. In the two recent novels, the key characters escape these perils and the moment of sexual initiation is infinitely deferred. These recent teen texts are reticent about sex and its proper place in a teen girl’s life, just as in chick lit sex is frequently glossed over, or presented coyly as if unworthy of further comment or criticism: ‘this coyness becomes suspicious ultimately—are women so completely satisfied with the sex they’re getting, or would the depiction of troubled sex be too strident, too feminist?’ (Whelehan 2005: 206). While the representation of sex in chick lit might be about changing tastes in fictional representation and implicit challenges to the Second Wave feminist perspective that heterosex is always a problem, teen sex in teen fiction invites the scrutiny of those with strong feelings about how sex is presented, what information is seen to be offered and how readers might act on that information. It can be argued that graphic sex offers a ‘how to’ manual for ignorant or uncorrupted teenagers who might otherwise have preserved their virginity through ignorance or fear, and presumably this is the logic behind the frequent banning of Blume’s novel from public and school libraries in the USA. A contrary argument might be that if not in popular culture, then where do teens access free non-judgemental advice and guidance, since the provision of sex education, in the UK at least, remains patchy, voluntary and does not necessarily provide comprehensive information about disease prevention and relationships.4
The mass media obsession with teenage sexuality has been played out at least since the 1950s in melodramas about teenage pregnancy, setting the good girls who go steady against the bad ones who get pregnant and don’t get their men, and Blume’s Forever was written in response to this, offering us a portrait of a young couple who ‘do it’ but survive without punishment. Blume has said herself that she was in part prompted to write this book in response to her own daughter’s request for a book about teenage relationships that didn’t end up in death or pregnancy. From the start of the novel Katherine’s parents are both understanding and facilitating of their child’s growth. Recognising the restriction on opportunities for her own self-realisation as an adolescent, Katherine’s mother encourages her to find her own boundaries in a supportive environment. While not actually advocating that she has a sexual relationship, they make a space for Katherine to enjoy private time with her boyfriend in the home, fearing dangers more catastrophic might befall her in popular teen parking spots in out-of-the-way places. Katherine’s relationship with her parents is, and remains, good even when they do indirectly intervene in her deepening relationship by insisting she go to summer camp with her sister and away from Michael. Katherine’s first person narrative is in some ways that of the model teen who heeds all the best advice of any agony aunt and who has in any case an advanced social conscience: she has one steady boyfriend who she loves and who she sees for a considerable time before they engage in full sexual intercourse. Along the way they find means to satisfy each other and learn about each other’s emotional needs, as well as developing techniques and understanding their own physical and emotional responses. Michael is eager to have sex (and has had limited experience in the form of a near anonymous liaison with a girl the previous summer), but does not put undue pressure on Katherine or threaten to end the relationship if she does not ‘put out’.
Before they have full sex, Katherine visits a planned parenthood centre, has a full check up and ensures she has the right contraception. This scene is one of the points where the novel feels less like fiction and more like a medical advice manual, in its attempt to be non-judgemental and anticipating the questions of the implied reader. This episode doubles as part of the narrative experiences of Katherine’s relationship and a place where, equally, the narrative virtually stops and adopts a tone that owes much to the important health pamphlets and publications produced by radical feminists in the 1970s, such as that written by the collective who produced Our Bodies, Our Selves. During her examination the doctor asks,:
‘“Would you like to see your cervix?”
“I don’t know ”
“I think it’s a good idea to become familiar with your body.”
He held a mirror between my legs and I looked down while he explained what I was seeing. It reminded me of the time that Erica taught me to use tampons.’ (Blume 2005:109–110).
Although in this novel Blume concentrates on the positives—two young people who fall in love, have sex and escape punishment—the minor characters offer cautionary tales more predictable in teen lit. Sybil, their classmate, conceals a pregnancy until it is too late for abortion and gives up the baby for adoption; Michael gets gonorrhoea from his first sexual partner, and his best friend Artie tries to hang himself after experiencing profound conflict about his sexuality. It is a difficult balancing act that Blume is trying to achieve here, to allow teenagers to think through the issues themselves and determine when they are ready for sex, and yet to be aware that dawning sexuality is a time of conflict, risk and misunderstanding. This anxiety is best exemplified by Katherine’s mother who, while reiterating her trust for her daughter’s judgement bombards her with edifying and cautionary newspaper articles. Katherine’s first full sexual experience with Michael is recounted with sensitivity and realism. It is not satisfying for Katherine and they both have to work at becoming in tune with each other’s bodies. Katherine, having already orgasmed with Michael in other ways, finds no problems achieving climax eventually, and the narrative implies that full sexual realisation is about both individuals’ right to satisfaction. Her mother tells her early on that having had sex with a partner one can’t go back to kissing, and this theme underlies the power of the novel’s reach to its readers—that while offering a ‘model relationship’ where sexual maturity is achieved in time, with supportive parents and partner and under no pressure, this is a momentous step that cannot be reversed. There is no stigma attached to it, but equally this narrative is curiously removed from other realities confronting teen girls then and now—not least the stigma attached to both girls who ‘do it’ and to ‘uptight virgins’ or ‘cock teasers’ who don’t.
In common with the most famous fictional protagonists from consciousness raising novels of the same period, such as Fear of Flying (Jong, 1973) and Kinflicks (Alther, 1976), Katherine is white, from a prosperous family, well educated and inured to the worst threats of the outside world . Her first sexual experience doesn’t hamper her or her boyfriend’s school work because of their own self-discipline, and it occurs in what is depicted as a blissful stress-free interlude between senior years at high school and the transition to college and university life. Forever caused and continues to cause heated debates about censorship and the ways children receive a sexual education; and at the same time that numerous US libraries and other interest groups tried to ban it, it was becoming a runaway bestseller. The two points are, of course, not unrelated. Regardless of the responsible way it treated teenage sexuality, the fact that it did and described the sex between its protagonists, was enough to make it worthy of censorship—add to that its mentions of Michael’s sister’s recreational drug use, teenage pregnancy, a friend who is trying to come to terms with his own conflicted sexual identity and who attempts suicide, and the mix becomes all the more unpalatable for those who feel that any description of such activities is a license to indulge in them and an endorsement of criminal behaviour. In teen fiction, in common with children’s fiction as a whole, the abiding belief that subject matter must be beyond reproach and not disturbing or corrupting makes the honest depiction of teenage turmoil, realist as it is, too hot to handle. Available statistics about children’s sexual practices, drug and alcohol use unfortunately do not gel with the ways many feel teenage years should be represented to teenagers.
In the case of Forever the protagonists come out of the experience relatively unscathed: despite their declarations that this love is forever, the relationship peters out quite naturally when Katherine, at summer camp, becomes attracted to someone else. Affectingly Blume manages to start a new chapter for her protagonists without implying any scepticism about their belief that their love could be permanent, and as a result she doesn’t alienate readers who may be going through similar events in their lives. Despite the occasional feeling that there is an older narrator injecting Katherine with rather too much common sense, Blume manages to portray teenage life as confusing and sexually charged without trivialising these experiences and by endorsing the importance for young women to understand themselves sexually before they embark on relationships with others. For all her well-intentioned liberal preaching, Blume does not undermine the reader’s sense of the possibility that their feelings of love for one other individual may endure. Katherine’s love for Michael diminishes with distance (just as is subtextually suggested, her parents hoped it would) and she becomes attracted to Theo just as naturally. The novel ends implying that Theo is the new boyfriend in waiting, but the inference clearly is that this will be one of a series of romances to take her on her journey to full adulthood. Yet Blume’s title endures, to be interpreted ironically or not as the reader chooses; certainly the strength of Katherine’s feelings for Michael are never directly undercut or belittled in the narrative, with only Theo commenting, whilst looking at Katherine’s necklace which has the word engraved on it, that ‘forever’s one hell of a long time for a kid like you.’ (Blume 2005: 160).
A young person’s bond with supportive parents remains a strong and distinct element of Cabot’s and Rushton’s work, where parents are allies rather than enemies in contrast to chick lit’s tendency to present familial fallouts and misunderstandings. In The Princess Diaries and The Secrets of Love the young women’s bonds to their mothers specifically are, and remain, strong. The mothers are role models who have coped as single parents, and the fathers are largely absent but loving and supportive. Mia in The Princess Diaries lives only with her mother whose ‘relationship’ with Mia’s father consists of a youthful liaison that ended in a surprise pregnancy. Once her father is rendered sterile after suffering testicular cancer, his bond to Mia becomes formalised as he is a Prince with no legitimate heirs (this also offers a new twist on the symbolic ‘castrations’ of romantic patriarchs like the blinded Rochester in Jane Eyre, for instance). Mia’s mother, like Katherine’s, is positive in every sense; an artist, she is also a self-declared feminist who refused marriage to the Prince ‘because at that time, she rejected the bourgeois mores of a society that didn’t even accept women as equals to men and refused to recognise her rights as an individual’ (Cabot 2007: 21). She is open with her child about her non-fairytale conception and like Katherine’s mother she serves to keep Mia grounded. Both Katherine and Mia have others who question their behaviour and demand that they act as individuals rather than succumb to the pressure of peers—Katherine has her gifted and artistic younger sister Jamie and Mia’s friend Lilly, the child of two psychoanalysts, serves a similar role of the maverick outsider who advocates authenticity and self-expression, and their presence allows a natural interruption to the first person narration of contrary perspectives to that of the heroine.
Unlike Katherine whose ‘right-on-ness’ and lack of concern for clothes and consumables marks her immediately as very last century, Mia is the true ‘postmodern’ third wave feminist style young woman who celebrates her contradictions—for instance her love of the stage musical of Beauty and the Beast: ‘I don’t care what Lilly says about Walt Disney and his misogynistic undertones. I’ve seen it seven times’ (Cabot 2007: 28). But she only embraces fashion and designer styling after ‘grandmere’ arrives in New York to train her to become a princess. Like all good teen movies, the makeover scene offers us the pleasure of the transformation of Doc Marten boot wearing Mia aristocratically coiffed, learning etiquette and modelling the more traditional forms of femininity. Just as the teen movies always merge realism with fantasy with aspirationally rich teens, so fiction such as The Princess Diaries merges the chick lit technique for basing its action in famous urban settings such as London and New York with a fairytale dimension as Mia is also the putative future head of state of the (fictional) principality of Genovia. This suggests an uneasy transition from the stuff of pre-teen fiction and U-classified movies to a world where palaces and designer shops can coexist, and class mobility is achieved by the magical revelation of royal birth, but the material realties of poverty or wealth are disguised by the way consumption is decoupled from hard cash (Grandmere takes care of the bills).
The references to Disney, a royal lineage and a future of prosperity suggest that teen romance exploits fairytale themes to guide the heroine to happiness, but this novel auto-referentially marks itself out from the average ‘teen romance’ by sending them up. Commenting on her friend Tina’s clutch of sugary romances, Mia comments ‘how many times in real life does anybody get amnesia? And when do cute young European terrorists ever take anybody hostage in the girls’ locker room? And if they did, wouldn’t it be on the day when you’re wearing your worst underwear, the kind with the holes and the loose elastic, and a bra that doesn’t match, and not a pink camisole and French knickers, like the heroine of that particular book?’ (Cabot 2007: 195). Considering this book begs the question, ‘how many young girls wake up one day to find themselves a princess?’ it handles its own fairytale dimensions with a knowing cynicism and suggests that these characters are not as worldly wise as they pretend to be. The novel is a rich texture of allusions to popular culture, philosophy, feminism, politics and even algebra, so that Mia’s life is presented as grounded in her school work and in her friendships.
Rushton’s references to Sense and Sensibility in The Secrets of Love are very much by way of Ang Lee’s 1995 film adaptation of Austen’s novel, which expanded the role of the third daughter, Margaret, and pitted romance and passion against reason and intellect. The plot parallels in Rushton’s novel, such as the death of the father and financial straits suffered by the family, suggest some darker themes must emerge, but bereavement and penury are quickly buried under the love plots of the three sisters. The key male characters, all teenagers, are a young artist, a rock musician and a wealthy thrill seeker. The latter two—Brandon and Hunter—offer the two polar opposites of dominant representations of sexually attractive masculinity—the sensitive, creative and loyal lover versus the charismatic, sexy and devious one. The stilted dialogue offers a picture of family life miraculously remaining whole despite divorce rapidly followed by the sudden death of the father. Abby’s (the Marianne Dashwood equivalent) terrible car accident after discovering the disloyalty of Hunter (Austen’s Willoughby) is the most edgy the novel gets, and his betrayal marks off ‘bad’ boys as the sexually predatory ones who only want one thing, while sex is a constant state of deferral, translated into fairly chaste kisses and walks together. Unlike Blume’s novel where love and first sexual encounter are a particular rite of passage but not the end of the chapter, love ends Rushton’s work with little concession to the relative ages of the characters or any of the social themes explored by Austen. This is Austen-lite; an impoverished example of Austen adaptation where the key purpose of the association is to furnish a romance plot with some substance by encouraging recognition with a popular romantic film, but offering little intertextual pleasure either by playful interpretation or wilful appropriation. Narrated in the third person with unconvincing teen voices throughout, this reads like a book aimed to dispense wisdoms, which takes its role as moral guide with entertainment to sugar the pill absolutely literally.
Chick lit scholarship has allowed us to reflect on the place of a genre which is seen as having no literary value, is a highly successful commercial product and which derives its success by reflecting contemporary concerns in female life. Feminists and moral crusaders alike are concerned about how contemporary women perceive their place in the world, and if chick lit is romance with realism, there is much for each interest group to concern themselves with. Teenagers generate specific moral panics, and with girls there is the particular fear that they grow up too fast, have sex earlier, drink more and have become more selfish and acquisitive. Certainly pre-teens are targeted by much more aggressive marketing which offers seven year olds crop tops, t-shirts with sexualised slogans and in providing so much merchandise, simply the will to consume. At the same time that this implies that teen girls must be deeply superficial, there are perennial fears that they are outstripping boys in examinations—successes which suggest, charmingly, a new generation of geeks. In other words, the panic around teenagers is contradictory, but based on the inherited wisdom that teenage life is deeply troubling for the children themselves and their parents where, necessarily, sex and relationships come to dominate as an aspiration if not a reality.
Popular cultural representations of girls and the modes of address found in teen magazines is considered deeply troubling and the fear from such publications is comparable to that engendered by popular fiction which generates an intimate and exclusive mode of address accepting that girls are exposed to ‘adult’ themes and issues from their early teens and that it is in some ways a natural transition from the Disneyfied fairytale to the adult romance. The teen magazines (British examples include Shout, Sugar and Mizz) aimed at girls have been the subject of numerous moral panics; Germaine Greer, for example, finds them morally impoverishing: ‘nothing in Sugar magazine suggests that a girl can have a life apart from lads, that she has any interests of her own beyond make-up, clothes and relationships, that she will ever get a job or travel, that she plays any sport, that she has ever read a book’ (1999: 312). Girls magazines, Greer suggests, emphasise homogeneity and buy into many young people’s anxiety about fitting in, possibly by intellectually underachieving. In a contrary fashion, The Princess Diaries emphasises difference and freakishness, echoing some of the most popular teen films of the past decade such as 10 Things I Hate about You (1999) and She’s All That (1999) (and of course the film of Princess Diaries (2001)) where the chief protagonist is the clever girl who eschews fashion, cheerleading and alpha males—until her makeover of course. Mia likes to wear Doc Marten boots, at fourteen is still flat chested and likes best to wear overalls, being uncomfortable in feminine attire. She’s bright and seeks out the most intelligent girls for friends, and diligently tries to do her homework—in this first volume a leit motif of her schoolwork is her attempts to improve at algebra, one side-effect being a growing attachment to Lilly’s brother Michael. In this way such novels undercut what Nash calls ‘the empty slogans of “girl power” that only means what it meant all along: the power to shop and to excite men; the power to serve capital and patriarchy’ (2006: 228).
Reviewing the relationship of chick lit to nineteenth century women’s literature, Juliette Wells observes that ‘rather than being the daughters of these authors, chick lit’s writers are their younger sisters, inclined to take a more lighthearted and less complex approach to fiction, even as they benefit from the changes in social mores and less conflicted attitudes toward women’s professional success’ (2006: 68). I have indicated elsewhere my feeling that chick lit is a response to a dominant sense of wider life choices as something of a burden for contemporary women; yet their embracing of ur-texts which narrate, embody and challenge women’s constraint has to be set against the politicised women’s writings of a previous generation which have more recently become neglected by readers and critics alike. I’m fascinated that Blume’s novel has endured and can sit alongside Princess Diaries on a twenty-first century girl’s bookshelf, suggesting that the discourse of teenhood have not changed so dramatically as those around older women. Discourses of adolescent development which note girls’ need to ‘belong’ to a group sees them taking on the mantle of a ‘false self’, remind us of the challenges met by chick lit heroines to find their authentic selves among the morass of Cosmo wisdoms and dating rule books. Just as Bridget Jones admits to her magazine and self-help manual addiction, the protagonists and their friends in teen lit use a mode of address with each other which echoes the rhetoric of teen magazine speak—the rhetorical questions to which the good friend normally replies with the usual comforting affirmatives. For Caroline Smith ‘Women writers have a long history of connecting their fiction with consumer culture, and in some ways, chick lit novels are merely continuing that trend with their direct references to magazines, self-help books, romantic comedies, and domestic-advice manuals’ (2008: 8). Chick lit in turn becomes a source for ‘truths’ about woman today in an interchangeable discourse that flits to and fro between literary texts to popular and consumer culture, just as teen fiction’s absences suggest deep seated fears about the power of literature to teach and influence beyond other sources such as education and responsible parenting.
Patrice Oppliger’s recent book offers a more conservative slant on the themes picked up in Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs (2006), pursuing the idea that ‘raunch culture’ has absorbed girls lives and sexualised them in a celebration of ‘skank’ fashion which fetishises celebrities whose grungy, booze and drug-fuelled activities become the focus of celebrity gossip magazines (2008: 9). She notes that in emulating bad-girl figures such as Lindsay Lohan or Britney Spears, teenage girls consume playboy merchandise and wear ‘porn star’ t-shirts without understanding the complex discourses they are engaging with. Oppliger advocates the power of boycotting by concerned mums, perhaps missing the central thrust of her own argument, that these forms of merchandise have penetrated every arena of consumption. Even teen books, especially series such as Princess Diaries, themselves invite consumer loyalty, and exist in a cross-media intertextual framework where meanings are derived and developed from a number of cultural settings, chick lit being one of them and ‘skank’ merchandising another.
In the case of chick lit, the brand identification offered by the covers which have been appropriated by recent teen fiction suggests an easy transition from teen fiction to chick lit, just as ‘girl power’ became embodied by five grown women (The Spice Girls), adroitly demonstrating the possible lucrative slippage from one generational target product to another. Cabot is herself a ‘crossover’ author (just as Blume was before her) whose dual identity as teen/chick lit author offers the possibilities of brand loyalty and underscores certain structural and thematic similarities. I am not entirely convinced, however, that the use of portmanteau terms such as ‘teen chick lit’ or ‘chick lit jr.’ is productive in critical terms. As I stated earlier, chick lit which travels far beyond its original definition allows us to look at tendencies and crossovers, but otherwise might misleadingly suggest homogeneities which deny the influence of other genres or tendencies. I hope that my brief comparison of Cabot and Blume shows that teen romance as a genre has a long history and has equally compelling links with teen cinema which, since the 1990s has focused more often on female central characters. All these forms share core values which usually include the recommendation to wait for sex until one is ready and to not be bullied by peer group pressure. It is my view that chick lit is explored and recycled in some of the narrative strategies and themes of contemporary teen fiction; and in this I part company with Joanna Webb Johnson, who argues that the ‘chick lit jr.’ genre has its legacy in the rise of the novel and specifically in nineteenth century women’s writing, declaring that ‘one can almost envision a twenty-first century Little Women with a hot pink cover decorated with a crumpled glove, scorched dress, birdhouse turned mailbox, and locks of hair bundled together’ (Johnson 2006:144). One can indeed, and this transformation has occurred with recent Penguin and Headline imprints of Jane Austen novels, but this tells us much more about our ability to culturally repurpose texts to our own needs, than about any essential qualities these novels may have that makes them more sympathetic to chick lit themes.
The debates about the worthiness of teen fiction will rage more heatedly than those about chick lit where the dominant view is that teenagers waste their time on such fiction when they might be reading something more improving. Johnson’s view is that ‘A novel can teach without being authoritarian, and this instructional aspect is an important function of the chick-lit jr. genre’ (2006:146). What is engaging about Cabot’s Princess Diaries series is indeed the foregrounding of a sympathetic central character who is ‘different’ from her peers and in common with chick lit presents ‘a discourse of femininity which, although invariably longing for the Other-man, remains openly ambiguous about his actual value in women’s lives’ (Smyczyńska 2007: 56). Perhaps to look at these examples of teen fiction as manifestations of chick lit is to continue the meandering debate about the worth or meaning of chick lit into another distinct community of readers. A more interesting question might be whether moral outrage about consumption of ‘trash’ fiction is only directed at female readers and why this might be. Further, one might continue recent reflections on the relationship between chick lit and feminism to teen fiction and feminism and ask why, if writers like Cabot can depict positive feminist characters in their teen fiction, chick lit still feels the need to send feminism up or suggest it has little relevance to contemporary female life choices. Do teens need feminism in ways that adult women do not? In an arena where moral panics offer the right-leaning establishment an unwarranted dominance in debates about sex education and appropriate teen behaviour, is feminism still the only legitimate oppositional critique?
1 Such commentators include: the contributors to Ferriss and Young’s collection (2006), Caroline Smith (2008), Katarzyna Smyczyńska (2007), Whelehan (2004; 2005).
2 See for example Scarlett Thomas, ‘The Great Chick Lit Conspiracy’, Independent, 4 August 2002, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/the-great-chick-lit-conspiracy-638935.html, retrieved on 26 January 2008
3 Another text that might be useful for future comparision is Louise Rennison’s Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging (1999), the first of a series of ‘confessions of Georgia Nicolson’, written in diary form and recently adapted to the screen (2008).
4 See for example ‘Sex education “leaves teenagers clueless”’ by Sophie Borland, retrieved on 11 June 2008 from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1571442/Sex-education-‘leaves-teenagers-clueless’.html.
Blume, Judy, (2005 (1st pub. 1975)), Forever, London: Picador.
Borland, Sophie (2007) ‘Sex education “leaves teenagers clueless”’. Retrieved on 11 June 2008 from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1571442/Sex-education-‘leaves-teenagers-clueless’.html.
Cabot, Meg, The Princess Diaries (2007 (1st pub 2000)) Basingstoke: Macmillan.
Diegesis: Journal of the Association for Research in Popular Fictions (2004) Special issue on Chicklit (ed. Jo Knowles), No. 8, Winter.
Douglas, Susan J. (1994) Where the Girls Are: Growing up Female with the Mass Media, New York: Times Books.
Greer, Germaine (1999) The Whole Woman, London: Transworld Publishers Ltd.
Johnson, Joanna Webb (2006), ‘Chick Lit Jr.: More than Glitz and Glamour for Teens and Tweens’, in Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young (eds), Chick Lit: The New Woman’s Fiction, New York: Routledge.
Nash, Ilana (2006) American Sweethearts: Teenage Girls in Twentieth-Century Popular Culture, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Oppliger, Patrice A. (2008) Girls Gone Skank: The Sexualisation of Girls in American Culture, Jefferson, N.C., McFarland & Co Inc.
Rushton, Rosie (2005) The Secrets of Love, London: Piccadilly Press.
Smith, Caroline J. (2008) Cosmopolitan Culture and Consumerism in Chick Lit, New York: Routledge.
Smyczyńska, Katarzyna (2007) The World According to Bridget Jones: Discourses of Identity in Chicklit Fictions, Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.
Thomas, Scarlett (2002), ‘The Great Chick Lit Conspiracy’, Independent, 4 August, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/the-great-chick-lit-conspiracy-638935.html, retrieved on 26 January 2008.
Wells, Juliette (2006) ‘Mothers of Chick Lit? Women Writers, Readers, and Literary History’, in Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young (eds), Chick Lit: The New Woman’s Fiction, New York: Routledge.
Whelehan, Imelda, ‘Sex and the Single Girl: Helen Fielding, Erica Jong and Helen Gurley Brown’, in Emma Parker (ed.), Essays and Studies: Contemporary British Women Writers, Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2004, pp. 28–40.
Whelehan, Imelda (2005) The Feminist Bestseller, Basingstoke: Palgrave.