Chick Lit: A Postfeminist Fairy Tale.
Georgina C. Isbister
University of Sydney
This article argues that the popular fiction genre of chick lit can be illuminated by a discussion of the redeployment of fairy tale tropes in a ‘popular postfeminist’ context. Utilizing many conventions of romantic fairy tales, chick lit focuses on protagonists’ relationships and their quest for the romantic ideal of ‘true love’. Yet it also departs from these narratives in its ‘postfeminist’ twist on the fairy tale, filtering the central fairy tale narrative through a lens dramatically shaped by the influence of feminism on late twentieth-century popular culture. The fairy tale metamorphosis in chick lit nevertheless continues to be the metamorphosis of the self on which so many fairytales magically depended. In the chick lit example, the fairy tale conventions of quest and transformation are incorporated in terms that I want to associate with ‘popular postfeminism’. In unpacking what I will term the ‘postfeminist fairy tale’, this essay will focus on a particular idealisation of the ‘true self’—a woman capable of ‘having it all’ (education, career, economic independence, love and family).
I will argue here that, as feminist writers revised the fairy tale genre, creating a sub-genre of feminist fairy tales, popular incorporation of some feminist ideas into mainstream culture has produced new versions of the fairytale, some of which we can see in chick lit. Although the genre of chick lit often seems quite far from the feminist reconfiguration of fairytales in writers like Angela Carter, it similarly reinforces links between fairy tales and women’s experience. The postfeminist fairy tale is a sub-genre of fairy tales that I see manifesting particularly within the genre of chick lit and its subsequent film and television adaptations, in texts such as Bridget Jones’s Diary, The Devil Wears Prada, Sex and The City and Lipstick Jungle. This sub-genre incorporates and reconfigures both traditional and feminist fairy tale discourses in popular culture. This postfeminist fairy tale manifests in some influential ways the impact of feminism in popular culture, and moreover operates as a navigational tool for readers and writers exploring ‘popular postfeminist’ expressions of contemporary women’s experience.
In exploring these claims across a range of contemporary and historical feminist scholarship, this article is divided into three main sections. The first section considers postfeminism in the academy and then in mainstream media cultures. Drawing on recent work by Rosalind Gill (2007) on postfeminism as a ‘sensibility’, I claim that the postfeminist fairy tale constitutes a way of bringing popular postfeminism to the foreground in fiction. The postfeminist fairy tale is both a new intervention in the fairy tale genre and continuous with fairytales as a genre that is constantly being reinvented, and the second section gives an overview of fairy tales’ historical transformations and the associations with women’s experience which were additionally reinforced by later feminist re-framings of the genre. Indeed, fairy tales manifest and reflect historical and cultural change and, through their connection to women, can be important sites for the investigation of women’s experience. Finally, by analyzing chick lit, and focusing particularly on a novel which for many is the archetypal chick lit text signalling the emergence of the genre, Bridget Jones’s Diary (1996), I will explore how the conjunction of popular postfeminism and fairy tale narratives works in chick lit. Focusing on Bridget Jones’ attempts at postfeminist transformation, particularly in her career and relationships, I aim to exemplify how, in chick lit, the discourses we might understand as ‘popular postfeminism’ have taken up and deployed fairy tale narratives and thus taken up a place in popular cultural renegotiation of idealised womanhood. Centrally, I argue that the postfeminist fairy tale offers women readers, as well as theorists, a tool for navigating the field of contemporary debates concerning women’s relationship to heteronormative romance.
The term postfeminism has generated much debate amongst feminist scholars concerning its implications for the current state and future of feminism (Brooks, 1997; Gill, 2007; McRobbie 2007; Tasker & Negra, 2007). Gill (2007) suggests there are three dominant accounts of postfeminism within the academy: an epistemological or political stance in light of feminist incorporations of ‘difference’, an historical shift within feminism directed by a movement away from Second Wave feminist ideologies, and a backlash against feminism (Gill, 2007:148). Ann Brooks (1997:1) argues that postfeminism is ‘an expression of a stage in the constant evolutionary movement of feminism’ that explores the intersections of multiple postmodern, post-structuralist and post-colonial feminist discourses which critique earlier ‘second wave’ feminist movements. Brooks and Angela McRobbie (2007) both argue for a complication of postfeminist discourses. They claim that postfeminism reflects the institutionalization of feminism in the academy and thus provides a space for a reflexive feminist discourse that takes into account the current situation of feminism within this academic context. McRobbie (2007:27) argues that for feminism to be ‘taken into account’ it must be understood as already having passed. In this way, McRobbie and Brooks understand the ‘posting’ of feminism as having the potential to re-engage feminist discussions rather than shutting them down.
Other theorists and critics have framed postfeminism as a historical shift, signalling generational movements away from second wave feminist ideologies to newly individualist ideals of freedom and choice, in what has also been called the Third Wave Feminist Agenda (Heywood & Drake, 1997). Ideas of professional success and personal happiness, and ultimately an ideal of ‘having it all’ were hallmarks of this historical shift (Dow, 1996; Hollows, 2000; Moseley & Read, 2002). Finally, Susan Faludi (1992) is one of the influential critics who see postfeminism as a backlash against feminism and its fight for equal rights, represented as having apparently only made women miserable (Hollows, 2000:190). In Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women, Faludi claims that feminism was no longer seen or embraced by women as relevant to their lives (Siegel, 1997:75).
What postfeminism most clearly names is debate concerning feminism’s relevance and future role in women’s lives. Whilst these analytical framings continue to develop in the feminist academy, in a variety of popular, media and consumer cultures postfeminism has taken further manifestations. Gill sees postfeminism as a ‘sensibility’ that characterizes multiple media products. She claims:
postfeminist media culture should be our critical object—rather than an analytic perspective. This approach does not require a static notion of one single authentic feminism as a comparison point, but instead is informed by postmodernist and constructionist perspectives and seeks to examine what is distinctive about contemporary articulations of gender in the media (Gill, 2007:148).
This ‘postfeminist media culture’—or popular postfeminism, as I will call it—is distinct from academic feminism in countering what it positions as traditional (second wave) feminism with an apparently uncomplicated ideal that ‘women can have it all’: education, career, economic independence, love and family. Not all popular media texts we can call postfeminist represent this ideal as attainable but they all represent it as the contemporary aspiration which makes second wave feminist claims redundant, inadequate or at least unrealistic.
As a discourse, popular postfeminism is informed by feminist interventions into popular cultures as well as subsequent postfeminist academic debates. Yet, even as popular postfeminism offers feminist scholars investigative avenues for thinking through these theoretical ideas, its potential as a site for considering contemporary women’s experience of these debates about what women do and should aspire to justifies ‘popular postfeminism’ being treated as a separate field. Popular postfeminism provides a needed space for exploring expressions of women’s experience, especially including those women who do not identify as feminist. It represents women who are often struggling with gendered issues without equating such a struggle with political identification as a feminist. Moreover, popular postfeminism’s manifestation in popular culture foregrounds a variety of consumer, economic and neo-liberal forces that are commonly contrary to feminist agendas but undoubtedly key contexts for the women to whom chick lit and feminism aim to speak. As a discourse shaped by multiple and diverse influences, popular postfeminism, like its academic counterpart, recognises a perception that feminist struggles have now enabled gender equality and opportunity for women in all aspects of economic, social, professional, domestic and political life. As Diane Negra (2009:2) argues, postfeminism in the context of popular culture:
offers the pleasure and comfort of (re) claiming an identity uncomplicated by gender politics, postmodernism, or institutional critique. This widely-applied and highly contradictory term performs as if it is commonsensical and presents itself as pleasingly moderate in contrast to a “shrill” feminism.
Indeed, one prevailing characteristic of popular postfeminism is that women can even reclaim traditional ideals of femininity and re-embrace institutionalized heterosexual ideals of marriage and family without contradicting feminist principles (Coppock, Haydon & Richter, 1995). Popular media images which caricature Second Wave feminists ‘as unhappy, embittered, man-hating women’ (Coppock, Haydon & Richter, 1995:4), have discouraged many young women from identifying with feminism at all, presuming it threatens traditional notions of femininity and heterosexual ideals of marriage and motherhood (Ouellette, 2002), but popular postfeminism does not so uniformly resolve these questions.
Popular postfeminism thus incorporates a tension between representations of femininity and feminism (Ouelette, 2002) which is also present in some academic postfeminisms, in what McRobbie has called a ‘double entanglement’ of anti-feminist and feminist themes (McRobbie, 2007; Gill, 2007). Neoliberal projects of individualism are evident in much popular postfeminism (McRobbie, 2007; Gill, 2007), where neoliberalism is understood to construct individuals as ‘entrepreneurial actors’ who are responsible for their personal biographies of success no matter what their situation is (Gill, 2007:163). This entrepreneurial ethos comfortably slots into the dominant popular postfeminist ideal in which ‘women can have it all’ (as long as they work hard and make the right choices). This move towards self-regulated subjects who are responsible for their own monitoring and transformations supposedly places women in control of their own agency and destiny; as Gill writes, ‘women are required to work on and transform the self, regulate every aspect of their conduct, and present their actions as freely chosen’ (Gill, 2007:164). As the postfeminist fairy tale in chick lit makes particularly clear, in popular postfeminism this ‘double entanglement’ abjures women to conform to a particular glamorized traditional femininity whilst also appearing empowered and self directed in all aspects of their life.
A focus on consumerism as the ultimate technology of female empowerment complements these changes, and this is where I will suggest chick lit’s function can be most clearly evident. Tasker and Negra argue that postfeminist culture has largely commodified feminism through an image of woman as empowered consumer, positing both their public and private lives as centrally directed by ‘freedom of choice’ (Tasker & Negra, 2007:2). With popular postfeminist discourse hailing women as super heroines (Superwoman, Wonder Woman and Super Mum),1 consumer interests have seized on women’s role as earners, providing an ever-evolving supply of new images to sell. Iconic depictions of female empowerment such as Girl Power (Whelehan, 2000; Gill, 2007) were deployed by advertising industries as marketing strategies aimed at women, and feminine commodities such as women’s fashion, beauty products, fiction and non-fiction literature embraced these ideals2. Self-help manuals further epitomized these popular postfeminist discourses, depicting the transformation from female victim (of both patriarchal hegemonies and Second Wave feminist ideologies) into an empowered contemporary woman3. Thus popular postfeminism represents female empowerment by combining particular feminist and neoliberal ideals in images of consumer success. The postfeminist fairy tale aids this transformation into empowered femininity. The ‘ideal’ postfeminist woman is characterised as feminine, intelligent and career-directed, whilst also successful in love and domestic spheres. She is the postfeminist fairy tale as it manifests in chick lit is a story of both quest and transformation articulating the intersections between feminist, neoliberal and consumer influences of popular postfeminism.
Romancing Female Subjectivity: A history of women and fairy tales
Before exploring the concept of the postfeminist fairy tale, it will be helpful to revisit the connections between women and romantic fairy tales as well as the implications of more recent feminist interventions into folklore scholarship. Discourses of love and romance share a long association with women and the popular cultures they consume.4 As far back as the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, French women writers had identified fairy tales as having something to say about gender and sexuality, as they themselves had experimented with gender constructions in their own tales (Haase, 2004). Women story-tellers and writers have used fairy tales as a means of exploring, rewriting and subverting their socio-political situations for centuries (Harries, 2001; Tatar, 1999; Bernheimer, 1998). The vast majority of printed versions of fairy tales, however, have been published and re-written by men, constraining and re-editing a rich history of women writers and tellers of fairy tales given that fairy tales are generally considered to have developed out of a predominately female oral tradition (Harries, 2001). Subsequently, from the late seventeenth century onwards, the association between women and fairy tales was manifest more as an effect of their shared links to representations of romance and marriage rather than as oral traditions passed between generations of female story-tellers.
Charles Perrault’s fairy tale editions, Tales of Mother Goose, published in 1695 (Perrault, 1956), signalled the emergence of the written fairy tale genre as a sub genre of folktales. Perrault’s fairy tales predominantly featured young female protagonists, including ‘Cinderella’, ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, portraying the ascribed developmental trajectories of young women of the period—specifically, a girl’s path from daughter to wife. Perrault’s work promoted as well as popularized links between women and fairy tales encouraging romantic ideals of love and marriage. ‘True love’ became the magical agent of female transformation encouraging women readers to see marriage as a key to upward mobility. Indeed, the social upheaval caused by the industrialization of Europe at this time led to dramatic changes in family structures, and ideas of individualism took hold that generated a need for new social arrangements that encouraged courtship between men and women. The emergence of fairy tales as the genre we now recognise as the ‘traditional fairy tale’ is thus contemporary with the gradual emergence of what we now recognise as feminism, reflecting on the same social changes.
In this context, Wendy Langford (1999: 2) argues that ‘Passionate involvement with one other person began to be constructed as a primary ground for identity formation, rather than wider kinship networks or social position’. Romance ideologies became instilled in courtship rituals in this period, encouraging the romanticisation of discourses of love and its association with women and marriage. With these social changes came an increase in fairy tale consumption by young women, encouraging discourses that amplified the importance for women’s popular culture of romance as a genre and romantic feelings as an ideal This was not only the case within the ruling and middle classes but for the working classes (Otnes & Pleck, 2003). The development of new and faster printing techniques and the significant increase in the numbers of literate and educated women also broadened the field of and changed the cultural contexts for romance genres.
In the early twentieth century, when mass produced romance fiction was steadily making its mark on the publishing industry, and in the homes of women across the western world (Radway, 1991), the film industry was also burgeoning. In the first half of the twentieth century, Walt Disney began reproducing animated adaptations of classic fairy tale romances, representing protagonists as passive, pretty, obedient and good heroines waiting to be rescued by their prince (Lieberman, 1972; Stone, 1975). Disney films became instrumental in strengthening women’s relationship to fairy tales, not only by popularizing the genre through the exposure such films enabled, but through the perpetuation of a coherent representation of femininity tied to idealised narratives of romance (Stone, 1975). This reinforced an image of womanhood defined through the love of a husband. These animated films idealised a specific portrayal of what it was to be a woman—passive and good—and construed transformation by love as woman’s salvation.5 As Simone de Beauvoir (1988:653) notoriously described the 1950s housewife: ‘Love becomes for her a religion’.
Feminist Interventions into ‘Happily Ever After’
In the late 1960s, feminist scholars and authors began critically investigating fairy tales and their role in socializing women’s subject formation, cultural identities and relationships to discourses of romance. A 1970 New York Review of Books article by Alison Lurie inspired a particularly intense feminist debate over the genre. ‘Fairy Tale Liberation’ argued that fairy tales were a liberating force for women and girls because female protagonists in fairy tales were strong role models for both younger and future generations of women. This claim inflamed much of the feminist community and scholars such as Marcia Lieberman (1972), and Karen Rowe (1986) responded vehemently.6 Each declared that the classic fairy tales reproduced in popular culture propagated romantic ideals of love and that this was primarily a strategic manoeuvre to keep women bonded to men. Their central claim was that patriarchal structures shaped cultural ideas about sex/gender roles through the lens of romance. Fairy tales encouraged women to idealize love and, as such, their role as subservient passive housewives.
As feminist debates developed it soon became apparent that associations between women and fairy tales were not solely a result of patriarchal hegemonies cultivating ideals of romance as a means of subordinating women. Later writers challenged this frequently generalized and simplistic analysis, arguing that female audiences identified with both the heroines and heroes (Stone, 1996; Gilbert & Gubar, 1979). Readers encountered fairy tales as a means of escape and pleasure and in the hope they offered as a catalyst and framework for transforming their own lives.7 Stevi Jackson (1995:50) further suggested that ‘It is possible to recognize that love is a site of women’s complicity in patriarchal relations while still noting that it can also be a site of resistance’.
Feminist scholarship on fairy tales and romance has therefore moved away from a polarized debate, which claimed that romantic fairy tales either represented false notions about sex roles or were revolutionary sites. Nonetheless, early feminist research on fairy tales paved the way for the discovery of alternative fairy tale forms and narratives and their relevance to contemporary popular cultures. As a genre that women both participated in and utilized as a cultural framework to negotiate individual subjectivities and relationships, feminists across multiple disciplines have engaged, debated and assimilated romantic fairy tale discourses into their work (Haase, 2004). As feminism has developed and spread across multiple spheres of ethnicity, race, class, generations and sexualities, fairy tale narratives have visibly adjusted, reflecting cultural shifts and critical turns. The explicitly feminist fairytales of writers Angela Carter and Marina Warner, Alan Dundes’s (1988) scholarship on cross-cultural retellings of the Cinderella tale, more popular retellings of Cinderella in films such as Ever After (1998), Bridget Jones’s Diary and Sex and the City (2008) and multiple re-framings of fairy tale narratives in romance fiction (discussed in the next section) all exemplify the fairy tale’s many transformations8. These feminist rewritings and theoretical re-framings of fairy tales in fact reinforced connections between women and fairy tale ideals of romance and love. In this way, both types of feminist interventions drew attention to the central role fairy tales had come to play in women’s lives.
Consuming Fairy Tales in Chick Lit
Fairy tale narratives, as many writers and folklore scholars have argued (Carter, 2005, 1979; Tarter, 1999; Warner, 1995), are not simple and straightforward narratives which are concluded with ‘happily ever after’. Angela Carter (2005:xx) describes the goal of fairy tales as a ‘Utopian one, indeed a form of heroic optimism—as if to say, one day, we might be happy, even if it won’t last’. As Carter claims, the Utopian idealism of fairy tales is a key ingredient generating hope in the minds of readers, not only as an escapist pleasure but a mechanism that propels them through an engagement with the complexities and struggles of the protagonist. However, delving deeper into their narratives, it becomes apparent that there is a lot more to fairy tales than their optimistic conclusions. Cinderella may end with a true love transformation but family struggle fuels the central narrative. Fairy tales, both past and contemporary, tell of the conflicts, contradictions and complications of everyday life, alongside ‘journeys of self discovery, recognition and confrontation of internal anxieties and desires’ (Swann Jones 2002:16–17). So whereas fairy tales may offer a promise or an ideal to strive for, they rarely offer solutions—instead providing an exploratory space for the discussion of social issues. Marina Warner (1995:XXI) explains:
The happy endings of fairy tales are only the beginnings of the larger story, and any study which attempts to encompass it wholly must stumble and fall before any kind of ending can be made: the story of storytelling is a tale that will never be done. As one traditional closing formula implies, the story is made of both together: ‘This is my story, I’ve told it, and in your hands I leave it’.
As this quotation suggests, fairy tales are shaped by readers’ participation in them as much as the authors who write them, in that readers see in the characters a cultural tool to explore the struggles they face. Fairy tales’ productive capacities enable their consumers to think through or even transform themselves out of their current situation. As cultural work on romance reading attests, women participate in romance as a way of examining their social situations (Modleski, 2008, Radway, 1991) using fairy tale narratives to ‘engage in complex and contradictory ways with real problems—offering temporary, magical, fantasy or symbolic solutions’ (Gill & Herdieckerhoff 2006:492).
The genre of chick lit has a large number of female readers who appear to identify with and participate in its protagonists’ trials and tribulations (Whelehan, 2005). Escaping into chick lit can offer women readers both temporary respite and hope for resolving the very real negotiations of their own situations. Yet chick lit protagonists differ from the heroines of earlier romance novels in the choices and opportunities available to them. Career and economic independence drives their narratives at least as much as romance, as Gill and Herdieckerhoff (2006:495) explain:
In traditional romantic novels, heroines are not normally seen as particularly career driven despite their spirited nature and intelligence. Rather, they see advancement and power through romantic alliance with a man. In this respect, the female characters in chick lit novels seem markedly different, as they are invariably portrayed as employed and committed to the idea of career.
Chick lit unmistakably portrays postfeminist ideals of empowered femininity as central to its protagonist’s experiences. Protagonists’ quests are concerned with navigating the ebbs and flows of contemporary female experience, negotiating the challenges of juggling personal autonomy, career, family, friendship and love.
Chick lit particularly invokes the experiences of single, mid-twenty to thirty year old women negotiating the complexities, contradictions and anxieties of feminist ideals during their peak years of independence.9 Chick lit heroines are less reliant on being rescued and transformed by their ‘true love’ than those of traditional fairy tales, rather relying on their own skills and their friendships to sustain them in times of adversity or when their ‘luck’ is down. Even as fairy tale romance remains a focus of their lives, ‘true love’ and ‘happily ever after’ have been relegated to a secondary position in relation to the transformations of the self. As Stephanie Harzewski (2006:37) argues: ‘the quest for self-definition and the balancing of work with social interaction is given equal or more attention than the relationship conflict.’ The idea of a prince charming, Mr. Right, or ‘true love’, is still a focal part of the protagonist’s quest in chick lit. But significantly, the point and focus of the protagonist’s transformation has shifted from the ideal achievement of ‘true love’ to an ideal achievement of the ‘true self’. Only once this transformation has occurred can she possibly be successful in attaining ‘true love’. Alison Umminger sums this up well:
Chick lit might seem at first to be a category of novels primarily concerned with finding a mate—the search for a decent man in a sea of indecent “perverts and Fuckwits,” to quote Ms. Jones. And although this is a controlling feature of the genre, I maintain that in many of the books this partner quest is entirely secondary to the ongoing battle chick lit’s heroines are engaging with themselves (Umminger, 2006:240).
Even as the romantic quest for ‘true love’ has become secondary, chick lit’s negotiation between fairy tale ideals of love and the popular postfeminist traits of independence and responsibility identified earlier sheds light on contemporary women’s self-formation. Chick lit weaves popular postfeminism through its narratives, producing new gendered ideals centred on recognisably feminist ideals of female empowerment and self-realization intersected with traditional gendered ideals of ‘true love’ and other capitalist neoliberal images of promised satisfaction.
An array of chick lit novels embody these postfeminist ideals in their plots. In The Trials of Tiffany Trott (Wolff, 1998) the protagonist challenges the assumption that having a full-time relationship or marriage is a necessary part of ‘having it all’. In Mr Maybe (1999), the character of Libby Mason is a publicist who realizes that marrying the wealthy Ed McMahon may not be worth the fabulous designer lifestyle that she thought would mark her as ‘having it all’. She decides that Nick—an unemployed writer whom she loves spending time with and who knows how to make her laugh—may be just what she wants. In Sex and the City (Busnell, 1998), Carrie Bradshaw concludes, in the final episode of the television adaptation born out of the novel, that ‘the most exciting, challenging and significant relationship of all, is the one you have with yourself. And if you find someone to love the you you love Well that’s just fabulous.’10 And, in a critical twist on the genre, Not Meeting Mr Right (Heiss, 2007) sees the character of Alice Aigner coming face to face with the whiteness of many postfeminist ideals, as well as the complexity of still wanting many of these ideals which are often opposed to her identification as a Koori woman. She further articulates the contradictions embedded in her consumption of fairy tales, questioning whether she really wants the ‘after’ in ‘happily ever after’:
Of course I’d dreamt about meeting Prince Charming and having a fairy tale wedding Problem was I’d never given any thought to what would happen after the wedding. All I really wanted was a man. A wedding would be fun too. But married life? Not for me (Heiss, 2007:5–6).
The Postfeminist Fairy Tale: Frogs, frocks and ‘freedom’
Bridget Jones’ commitment to transforming herself is signalled in the novel’s key narrative device, which is to structure her voice through the aid of a daily diary entry. The book begins with her New Year resolutions, and two lists: the ‘I will not’ list, including ‘Drink more than fourteen alcohol units in a week smoke spend more than I earn Get upset over men, but instead be poised and cool ice-queen’ (Fielding, 1996:2). The ‘I will’ list includes: ‘stop smoking Reduce circumference of thighs Improve career and find new job with potential Form functional relationship with responsible adult’ (Fielding, 1996:3). In these ways the novel frames the postfeminist ideal of wanting it all as the dominant narrative. As Bridget records her daily vices, weight measurements, number of cigarettes, alcohol units and self-help mantras performed (tasks drawn from her many self-help manuals) she documents her desired renovation into a thin, beautiful, intellectual and successful career woman. The diary format resembles a kind of Foucauldian technology of the self (Foucault, 1997:123), whereby documenting and self-monitoring according to postfeminist ideals somehow productively assists in the project of self-transformation.
Bridget strives to take responsibility for and control of her life in order to become what she understands to be a successful contemporary woman. Thus, chick lit novels are dominated by protagonists’ struggles with transforming themselves. In its conflation of both traditional ideals of true love and feminist ideals of self-autonomy, the postfeminist fairy tale in chick lit redirects the transformative narrative away from the agent of ‘true love’ and towards an affirmation of the protagonist’s agency. But as Warner’s earlier quote suggests, the ‘happily ever after’ transformation by ‘true love’, or ‘true self’ in the postfeminist fairy tale, is not the primary mechanism of fairy tales. Even as chick lit represents these ideals of the ‘true self’, its protagonist’s experiences reveal a contrasting reality. The character of Bridget is shown regularly botching work-related matters, ‘over thinking’ relations with men, and generally distributing her focus in too many directions as she attempts to appear triumphant and controlled in all aspects of her life. Preparing for the book launch of Kafka’s Motorbike Bridget prioritizes her event list, taking advice from a New Yorker columnist on the art of parties and networking to further one’s career. This list clearly highlights the contradictions within postfeminism, highlighting her anxiety over wanting a relationship but believing her own self-transformation (as an empowered career woman) should be more important:
1) Not to get too pissed.
2) To aim to meet people to network with.
11 p.m. Right
3) To put the social skills from the article into action
4) To make interesting contacts in the publishing world/ possibly even other professions in order to find new career.
As this example expresses, more often than not Bridget feels overwhelmed by the expectations postfeminist ideals create. She is often left in scenes of apparent failure, with a ‘wine’ and ‘ciggie’ in hand, congregating with friends and prostrating herself for not realizing her ‘true self’. In its incorporation of postfeminist ideals of self-transformation, chick lit’s portrayal of the postfeminist fairy tale not only sets its protagonists up to fail but maintains their responsibility for this failure. Protagonists’ experiences are messy, often both embarrassing and humorous, inviting readers to recognize their own anxieties in those of the protagonists. As Imelda Whelehan (2005:6) writes, ‘you don’t have to read too many of these texts to observe a shared note of anxiety about the fate of femininity after feminism and the culture of achievement it has seemed to breed’; according to Whelehan, ‘Chick lit speaks to those afraid they won’t make the cut and thrust of high female achievement’. In portraying the protagonists’ struggles so openly, chick lit creates a level of realism that many middle-class western women readers may recognize as their own: trying and failing to achieve the dream of having a career, amazing friends, Mr. Right, familial and financial success—and looking fabulous while doing so.
Postfeminist Romance: which frog?
To the extent that Bridget Jones’s Diary and other chick lit novels base their narratives around a love plot, they tend to do so by opposing two types of classic male suitors, the traditional Byronic hero (in Bridget’s case, Daniel Cleaver) and the contemporary nascent feminist hero (Mark Darcy).12 Here the two heroes together symbolize the protagonist’s negotiations of the traditional gendered romantic fantasy of love versus the contemporary feminist love of equality. In this way, the fairy tale plot plays upon the postfeminist antagonism between the feminine and the feminist mentioned earlier. As Bridget develops her relationships with both Darcy and Cleaver, she explores and questions what she wants in a man, constantly referring back to her fairy tale ideals of love and postfeminism (usually in one of her many self-help manuals).13 Bridget rates the advantages and failings of both men, trying to decide which is her more likely match. Negotiating between her irrational desires for Daniel, who is clearly not a good relationship prospect but evokes her romantic fantasy of Prince Charming, and Mark, who may not move her passions in the same manner but nonetheless provides an opportunity for a relationship of equality as well as the desired ‘functional relationship with responsible adult’ (Fielding, 1996:3). Indeed, Bridget’s negotiation between Daniel and Mark as opposing love interests metaphorically portrays the postfeminist fairy tale dilemma. The postfeminist ideal of ‘having it all’ is played out in these oppositions to ask whether women can ‘have it all’ in a relationship, traditional gendered ideals of romance and contemporary feminist ideals of equality. The play between Daniel as the Byronic hero and Mark as feminist hero represents Bridget’s own negotiation and exploration of her female identity.
Here we notice another shift in romantic fairy tale genre and functions. While earlier romance novels portrayed a budding feminist heroine defying the hero, their task was to soften and teach him the value of the classic feminine traits of caring and love for another (Pearce & Stacey, 1995). In chick lit, protagonists reflect on the futility of trying to change a man and the difficulty of actually finding one they like or that will make a commitment to them. Chick lit represents contemporary postfeminist women grappling with the instability of contemporary romance. The freedom and choice enabled for women by feminist interventions into relationship forms, along with related shifts in gendered power dynamics are in this sense portrayed as something of an ordeal. Protagonists are shown to be frustrated, often disheartened, by the ambiguities of contemporary romance and the apparent lack of relationship guidelines that result in part from feminist questioning. As Whelehan argues:
[i]t is precisely in the arena of romantic love that sexual politics failed to penetrate in any meaningful or long-lasting way, and what Fielding appears to be sending up here is the absence of a language of sexual desire that went beyond identifying the ways in which heterosexual relationships were imbued by inequalities of power.
On the surface, chick lit narratives appear to echo popular postfeminist proclamations that feminism is over. However, delving deeper into the characters and storylines this is not necessarily the case. These narratives often do not directly acknowledge the feminist dilemmas of protagonists, but consistently allude to a tension between feminist discourses and putatively mainstream women who don’t identify as feminist (Whelehan, ibid.). Protagonists repeatedly reflect on the conflicts presented by pursuing and negotiating relationships of equality that they certainly desire even while they often invoke a nostalgia for traditional marriage models. Bridget flits from desperately trying to prove that she is going somewhere in her professional life to attempts at being a ‘domestic goddess,’14 apparently readying herself for a life of marital bliss. Bridget is fixated on shaping her own contemporary womanhood, while quietly hoping her true love will come to rescue her from the endless challenges the postfeminist ideal of womanhood poses. Her constant daydreaming about Daniel Cleaver and the possibility of him marrying her acts as a nostalgic fantasy for the apparently simpler gender roles of the past (McRobbie, 2007:37). This not to say that contemporary readers of chick lit are wishing for the patriarchal chains of previous times, or that it dismisses any chance of feminism offering them valuable perspectives. Rather, chick lit gives a voice to the complexity of romantic ideals for contemporary women by allowing them to consider the limitations of the traditional ‘happily ever after’ ideal (Mabry, 2006) and the changing landscape of relationships brought about by new gender ideals.
This reading is reinforced when we realize that even though Bridget clearly judges her life in relation to the ideals of the heterosexual marriage institution, none of the examples of marriage or coupledom in Bridget Jones’s Diary are actually very positive (Guerrero, 2006:99). Bridget’s parents are separated, Darcy is divorced, and her best friend Jude spends half her time at work in the bathroom, crying on the phone to Bridget over ‘Vile Richard’ (Fielding, 1996:187), her non-committal boyfriend. It is important not to forget that the ‘smug’ married couples referred to in the book are rarely actually happy (Guerrero 2006). In many ways the novel challenges ideals of true love and idealization of traditional heteronormative relationship forms, urging a rethinking of women’s subjectivity in and outside of the frameworks that such relationship discourses have demanded.
Bridget’s journey is represented as one of transformation through the realization and affirmation of her ‘true self’. When Darcy expresses his admiration for Bridget, ‘Just as she is,’ it may be Darcy who speaks the words but it is Bridget’s own acceptance of herself, separate from him, that sees her transformation complete. Bridget does manage in the end to attain her ‘true love’ and equal, as romantic fairy tale convention dictates, and Bridget Jones’s Diary ends with a happily ever after. It matters then that the sequel Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (1999) revised that happy ending most of all because it is Bridget’s continued struggle to achieve the postfeminist fairy tale that resonates with readers and, as Whelehan (2000) suggests, installs her as the embodiment of the postfeminist zeitgeist.
Like classic fairy tales, the ‘happily ever after’ narrative of chick lit is an allegory of hope. The Utopian dimension of fairy tales generates heroic optimism for the achievement of women’s empowerment via a complication of popular postfeminist ideals. On the surface, the postfeminist fairy tale appears to embody contemporary women’s struggles with a representation of past relationship forms. Nevertheless, it draws attention to the necessity of navigating these ideals and their problematic interaction with heteronormative discourses, rather than convincingly suggesting protagonists can ultimately ‘have it all’. Chick lit’s fairy tale elements insist on a hope that both feminist and heteronormative love ideals can be compatible in women’s lives, and that the current instability of contemporary subjectivity will resolve itself in some new ideal grounded in gender equality. The postfeminist fairy tale complicates rather than resolves debates around the significance of romance in contemporary women’s experience, opening doors to re-thinking and re-configuring future female subjectivities. It speaks to women who may not be comfortable calling themselves feminists, yet are interested in thinking about the real gender issues that affect them. It is these contradictions within femininity and feminism that makes chick lit so enjoyable and provocative for its readers.
On one level, popular postfeminism recreates a quasi-universalized ideal of white middle class interests (Coppock, Haydon & Richter, 1995; McRobbie, 2007) specifically, in its suggestion of feminism’s redundancy. In this it again resembles academic postfeminism’s tendency to discriminate and superficially wash over its reinstatement of particular white middle class frames (somewhat ironically, considering second wave feminism was culpable of the same discrimination), and its close associations with neoliberal discourses of ‘choice’ that mark it as deeply problematic (Coppock, Haydon & Richter, 1995; McRobbie, 2007; Gill, 2007; Negra, 2009). In the wake of the dismantling of an earlier universalized second wave feminist movement, and the continued proliferation of neoliberal projects of individualism, a void in collective mainstream feminist voices has opened up. Arguably, popular postfeminism has situated itself in this void, coming to signify a mainstream site for the discussion of diverse feminist propositions and accompanying debates. At least, popular postfeminsm has emerged as a space that facilitates dialogues between various articulations of female identity and the contradictory forces that shape it. This is precisely because, within its fluctuating contours, it encompasses inherent inconsistencies and contradictions in representation. Most critically, popular postfeminism is the site occupied by mainstream women, many of whom are not engaged in feminist politics. Taking up Gill’s proposition that postfeminism is a sensibility, popular postfeminism may well be a crucial critical object into which feminists must inquire and with which it must engage. If there are to be further productive changes in the way feminism is perceived and enacted in public arenas, it is crucial for feminist scholars to continue to research popular postfeminism. Importantly, exploring representations of popular postfeminism, opens up avenues for finding out what women outside of the realms of academic feminism, those for whom it seems popular postfeminism is an active pleasure, are experiencing, thinking about and hoping for in their lives.
1 See Coppock, V. Haydon, D. & Richter, I. (1995) The Illusions of ‘Postfeminism’: New Women, Old Myths, Haussegger (2005) Wonder Woman: The myth of ‘having it all’ or Maushart (2005) What Women Want Next.
2 I use the term ‘Girl Power’ loosely to encompass girls and young women. In the 1990’s Madonna and the girl band the Spice Girls married consumerism with ‘Girl Power’ engendering it as representative of the postfeminist woman in popular culture. Note: a large body of literature complicates the term ‘Girl’ and its relationship to ‘woman’, see Taft (2004) ‘Girl Power Politics: Pop-Culture Barriers and Organizational Resistance’ or Driscoll (2002) Feminine Adolescence in Popular Culture and Cultural Theory.
3 Women’s advice manuals, books and magazines have embraced postfeminist ideals of the transformation of the self, becoming the dominant narrative of the female self-help genre, moving away from their role as dominantly guides for women’s love transformation. See Caroline J Smith (2005) ‘Living the Life of a Domestic Goddess: Chick Lit’s Response to Domestic-Advice Manuals’ or David Shumway (2003) Modern Love.
4 Examples of fairy tales used in women’s popular culture can be seen in; early romance novels such as those by Jane Austen and the Brönte Sisters, magazine periodicals, mass produced formula romances of Mills & Boon and Harlequin Enterprises as well as in more recent formats of film and television. See Jack Zipes (1986) Don’t Bet On The Prince: Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales in North America and England, Marina Warner (1995) From The Beast to The Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers or Maria Tartar (1999) The Classic Fairy Tales: Texts, Criticism.
5 Portrayals of strong women were predominantly confined to evil female characters, such as the evil Step Mother’s or old crones, thus perpetuating patriarchal gender dichotomies of passive heroines as good and active female characters as evil.
6 In her 1972 article ‘Some Day My Prince Will Come: Female Acculturation through the Fairy Tale’, Lieberman retaliated apparently nullifying Lurie’s argument by vehemently claiming that the fairy tales Lurie was speaking of were not mainstream enough for general readers to be reading, and thus irrelevant to feminist politics of the moment.
7 For further examples, see Gilbert and Gubar (1979) Madwoman in the Attic, Stone’s (1996) ‘and she lived happily ever after’, or the introduction to Pearce and Stacey’s (1995) Romance Revisited.
8 Also see Shrek (2001) and Bride and Prejudice (2004).
9 See Chris Mazza (2006) ‘Who’s Laughing Now? A Short History of Chick Lit and the perversion of a Genre’, in Feriss, S. & Young, M. (Ed) Chick lit: the new woman’s fiction.
10 I use a reference from the TV adaptation rather than the book, firstly, as it shows the wide appeal of chick lit (in that it was made into a Television series and more recently a film) and secondly because the final line, of the final episode, sums up the central narrative of the Sex and the City expressing the postfeminist fairy tale.
11 I use Bridget Jones Diary as the primary example, as its narratives focus specifically on the career/relationship dilemma that marked the emergence of the genre. Yet, I acknowledge the genre has expanded significantly in recent years to include subgenres of Mummy Lit, Christian lit, Ethnic Lit, Teen Lit and Hen Lit.
12 Also see Sex and The City (Bushnell, 1997), Senate (2001) Jane Date or The Cinderella Moment (Fox, 2006).
13 Bridget draws on self help books such as ‘The Goddess within’ (Fielding, 1996:195). The genre of self-help plays an active role in chick lit, operating as an important guide to the postfeminist transformation. In many ways trends in popular psychology, particularly the self-help genre, are heavily based on fairy tale ideals and forms. See Caroline J Smith (2005) ‘Living the Life of a Domestic Goddess: Chick Lit’s Response to Domestic-Advice Manuals’.
14 This is a reference to Nigella Lawson’s cookbook How to be a Domestic Goddess: Baking and the Art of Comfort Cooking (2001) that was an international best seller and appeared at a similar historical juncture as the chick lit phenomenon.
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