Chick Lit and Marian Keyes: The ideological background of the genre.
University of Lleida
Chick lit is a literary genre that originated in the mid-nineties, with its cornerstone novel, Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, published in 1996. In subsequent years, chick lit narratives have been further popularised by other media like television, with series such as Ally McBeal (1997) or Sex and the City (1998), which established the genre as a phenomenon in only a decade. Regardless of its phenomenal success in terms of sales , chick lit has been surrounded by ambiguities about its ideological commitment from its emergence. The fact that hundreds of novels with very different political slants are published yearly under the umbrella of the genre’s name adds up to the difficulty of pinning it down ideologically. Under these circumstances, this paper seeks to answer one of the questions put forward in connection with the genre, which arises from the doubts exposed in the following passage (Ferriss and Young, 2006: 9):
Reactions to chick lit are divided between those who expect literature by and about women to advance the political activism of feminism, to represent women’s struggles in patriarchal culture and offer inspiring images of strong, powerful women, and those who argue instead that it should portray the reality of young women grappling with modern life. The generations of women coming of age after the women’s movement of the 1960s find themselves in an ambiguous position: they have indubitably benefited from feminism’s push for education and access to the professions, but they still experience pressures from without and desires from within for romance and family. In short, they are caught between competing demands to be strong and independent while retaining their femininity. Is chick lit advancing the cause of feminism by appealing to female audiences and featuring empowered, professional women? Or does it rehearse the same patriarchal narrative of romance and performance of femininity that feminists once rejected?
Thus, the question I want to examine is: is chick lit representative of the discourses of feminism; or does it ultimately conform to patriarchal ideologies and have an exclusively commercial purpose?
With the purpose of finding possible explanations, in order to analyse the genre I have made use of critical discourse analysis, which van Dijk (2001: 352) defines as “a type of discourse analytical research that primarily studies the way social power abuse, dominance, and inequality are enacted, reproduced, and resisted by text and talk in the social and political context”. Alongside critical discourse analysis, I have drawn on cultural studies as the critical framework. According to this discipline, all cultural manifestations take place in specific contexts and are consequences of the background in which they were created; for this reason literature cannot be isolated from its social environment. As Fuery and Mansfield (2000: 23) define the term, cultural studies are “concerned with the investigation of how we read cultures, how cultures generate and sustain meanings and interpretations, how cultural perspectives are generated, and how cultural differences operate”. Consequently, culture and society nourish one another in a bi-directional process, showing the “vital signs of how we construct our culture and how that culture constructs us” (Brooker 1998: 2). Thus, the cultural representations found in chick lit are a reflection of the society in which the genre emerged and, at the same time, the genre operates transformatively on its audiences, helping them shape up their notion of feminism. Taking into account the multiplicity of media in which the ‘chick culture’ has manifested itself, in order to understand the circumstances of the genre’s appearance and its later success, it is crucial to look at the society in which it developed as a literary genre, but also at its narrative variations in television.
The great success of chick lit can be credited to the fact that the stories reproduce the situation of contemporary young women (or ‘chicks’, a term I will later discuss). The genre typically revolves around a specific type of fictional character: a thirty-year-old, white, middle-class, educated, single woman, with whom some readers can feel straightforwardly identified given their shared profile . As the fragment by Ferriss and Young (2006) quoted above suggests, the functions of the genre  are to reflect the individual experiences of some of its readers—that is, to “portray the reality of young women”—and to provide evidence that they share a common cause in their struggles—to “offer inspiring images”. In the passage, Ferriss and Young seem to suggest that these are mutually exclusive; however, other interpretations do not render these two functions incompatible (Whelehan, 2005: 173–190). The ‘lit’ in the name of the genre points to a factor which also accounts for the expansion of chick lit, since it represents an informal, abbreviated form of the word ‘literature’, thus designating a genre whose works are not in the domain of ‘high art’ and therefore belong to what has been labelled as ‘popular culture’—or, as Knowles (2004: 2) qualifies it, “middlebrow”, escaping the traditional high-low division. Taking into account the great expansion and popularity of genre fiction since the beginning of the twentieth century—detective fiction is a clear example (McAleer, 1978)—and the broad basis of chick lit in cultural aspects, which shows through its incorporation of references to contemporary culture that are easily recognisable by the readership, like fashion trends, media phenomena, or political events of historical relevance , the result is a genre with a formula that appeals to readers by including elements which are prototypical of romantic fiction whilst at the same time integrating some of the feminist political ideas with which most of its readers were brought up.
Another major influencing aspect for the popularity and rapid expansion of chick lit relates to the historical moment in which it appeared. Postmodernity emerged as the result of unique circumstances and developments that, according to theorists such as Fredric Jameson (1991), are associated with consumerism. Nowadays, in the era of ‘late capitalism’, leisure is one of the largest marketplaces and there has been a shift towards the production of innovative entertainment cultures that feed off the creation of new needs (see Jameson, 1991; Lyon, 1994; Berger, 1998). In this context, chick lit is the fashionable brand name of a marketable product that covers a market niche. It aims at young women, a group with high acquisitive power and a voracious appetite for a genre that specifically focuses on their concerns, as its main consumers, and can be seen as a cultural phenomenon that is mass produced, marketed and modified due to its malleability in order to suit all kinds of consumer necessities as well as all sorts of audiences. Chick lit can not only accommodate different ideological slants on the page, but also be easily translated to the screen, and due to its establishment as a phenomenally successful genre, it permeates other existing cultural products, from detective stories, with the genre of Tart noir, to women’s magazines, which have both influenced the development of the genre and, in turn, been influenced by it. As a consequence, this ‘chick culture’ both partakes of the context in which it has been created, and has an influential effect on the self-perception and the ideological background of its audience.
Given the size and productivity of the genre, in order to address my research question I have restricted my analysis to eight novels written by Marian Keyes as case studies: Watermelon (1995), Lucy Sullivan Is Getting Married (1996), Rachel’s Holiday (1998), Last Chance Saloon (1999), Sushi for Beginners (2000), Angels (2002), The Other Side of the Story (2004) and Anybody Out There? (2006). Eight novels constitute a sufficient corpus to extract significant conclusions; therefore, this examination omits Keyes’ works of non-fiction taking into account that the usage of the same narrative typology provides greater consistency in critical discourse analysis, one of my two tools of examination.
Marian Keyes is a well-known Irish writer, considered among the initiators of chick lit by the media, as said in several interviews with the author (McKeone, 1998; O’Connell, 1999; Twiston-Davies, 2001, among others). As I have previously suggested, Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary (1996) has been proclaimed the foundation novel of chick lit, (Ferriss and Young, 2006; Whelehan, 2000), but in fact, Marian Keyes’ first novel, Watermelon, appeared on the market in 1995 and had the features to qualify as chick lit: the type of protagonist (“young, quirky, female , living in the city, with fairly good jobs, usually in the fashion industry or the media”); the humorous tone and the topics covered—“the search for a man, the desire for a career change, promotion, self-improvement and the impossibility of the life/work balance” (Knowles, 2004: 43). Watermelon did not have the commercial success of Fielding’s Diary from the moment of its publication; however, Keyes’ novels have gradually gained popularity, to the point of being translated into more than thirty different languages  and appearing in the bestseller lists of countries such as the United Kingdom (The Sunday Times, The Guardian), Germany (Der Spiegel), the United States (New York Times) and Australia (Australian Publishers Association).
The choice of this writer as the focus for my research has not only been motivated by her impact worldwide, but also by the position of her novels at the core of the genre, alongside Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, meeting the general conventions of the chick lit formula. In this paper, instead of expounding the results of my analysis of Keyes’ novels one by one, which would lead to constant repetition of the same ideas, I have established two separate parts that represent the twofold ideological discourse that I have encountered. Thus, the first block corresponds to the pro-patriarchal politics reflected in the more conservative themes of the novels—of which I have chosen ‘Marriage,’ ‘Family,’ ‘Feminine Beauty’ and ‘Happy Endings’ as the most outstanding. Likewise, the second part reproduces Marian Keyes’ discourses in favour of the feminist agenda, which I have classified under the titles ‘Single Girls,’ ‘Friends,’ ‘Womanhood and Anxiety’ and, finally, ‘The Right to Choose.’ As the titles suggest, I have tried to establish dual oppositions between the topics dealt with in the first and the second part, evidencing the contradictions encountered during my research. Nevertheless, before proceeding into the examination, it is necessary to place chick lit further in context.
NAMING THE GENRE
The most problematic aspect that I encountered during my preliminary research was related to the varying designation of the genre as ‘chick lit’ or ‘post-feminist fiction’. The first name is meant to be ironic, as coined in 1995 by the editors Cris Mazza and Jeffrey DeShell, when they were looking for a title for an anthology of short stories by women which they eventually titled Chick-Lit: Postfeminist Fiction. ‘Chick lit’ is a witty combination of two words that signify ‘books for young women’, but at the same time the derogatory connotations of the word ‘chick’ , together with the fact that the phrase recalls the name ‘chiclet’ , has resulted in a demeaning effect, which explains why some chick lit authors like Jenny Colgan (2001) have declared that they do not feel comfortable with the term. According to Imelda Whelehan (2005: 171), “the epithet is interesting and provocative. It manages to insult women at the same time as it reminds us that the act of reading is just as gendered now as it ever has been”. In her paper ‘What’s in a Name? Defining chick lit, its writers and its readers’, Sarah Gormley (2005: 9) traces the historical usage of the term ‘chick’, which evidences that the term has several negative implications besides the “‘low’ literary value” of the novels: namely, “that the women who write and read chick lit are infantile, unintellectual, and concerned with the trivial”; but at the same time, she argues, the name connotes “a confident reclaiming of the word chick to denote an independent, self-assured, intelligent and ‘culturally savvy’ woman”. This more positive notion placed side by side with the acceptance of the name among the readership  led me to adopt it throughout my study of the genre.
On the other hand, the fact that the purpose of my research has been to establish, through the analysis of Marian Keyes’ novels, whether the ideological positioning of chick lit is closer to feminism or to patriarchal assumptions has influenced my choice of not referring to the genre as ‘post-feminist fiction’. The name ‘post-feminism’, given its construction by the mass media (Faludi, 1991), has several ideological implications that cause problems of conceptualisation. Since the emergence of the term, scholars have been trying to provide a working definition of what post-feminism entails, and although at face value, from an etymological point of view, post-feminism would be ‘what comes after feminism,’ considering the constant ambiguities into which the movement falls, it is difficult to establish, firstly, to what degree post-feminism defends women’s position in society and secondly, whether this movement is feminist at all.
Based on Faludi’s definition of the term, ‘post-feminism’ is a concept that the media appropriated in the eighties and which could be considered a synonym of ‘backlash’. Hence, Faludi refers to post-feminism as a situation where women “revile the women’s movement” (xix) and instead of identifying themselves with having “arrived at equal justice and moved beyond it”, show that they are “beyond even pretending to care” (72). In accordance, as Sarah Gamble (2004: 44) describes it, “‘postfeminism’ itself originated from within the media in the early 1980s and has always tended to be used in this context as indicative of joyous liberation from the ideological shackles of a hopelessly outdated feminist movement”. In the same line of thought, Modleski (1991) sees post-feminism as a rupture from the feminist movement due to the premature assumption that its objectives have been achieved, “in effect, delivering us back to a prefeminist world” (3).
In contrast, Ann Brooks (1997: 7) claims that the movement can be defined as “the current state of feminist thinking, specifically, feminism’s intersection with elements of cultural theory”. According to this view, post-feminism is the continuation of the feminist agenda within the academy and adapted to new times: the contemporary version of the traditional women’s movement founded in the sixties to fight against the establishment of patriarchy and in favour of women’s rights and of social equality with men. Phoca and Wright (1999: 3) support this perspective, defining the movement in the following terms: “Postfeminism does not mean feminism is over. It signifies a shift in feminist theory [It] has developed since the 1960s from the deconstruction of patriarchal discourses. This is a development of feminism informed by the key analytical strategies of contemporary thought”.
In addition to the contradicting definitions established by the media and the academy, the understanding of the concept ‘post-feminism’ is further complicated by the fact that feminism is a multifaceted movement with social, cultural, political and individual concerns, among others, that has been given several different interpretations. Feminism cannot be framed within a precise set of tenets and a homogeneous political agenda. This derives from the fact that there is not one single ideological line in feminism but many, as it is a set of movements that has been evolving for centuries, even before Charles Fourier coined the word in 1837. Since its earliest manifestations in the late 12th century , feminism has adopted different perspectives, types and meanings, and even today, when one refers to the concept ‘feminism’, it is necessary to specify in which sense we are using the word. As a response to this need, this piece will focus on the general definition of the term ‘feminism’ understood as the struggle for women’s rights or, as Hollows (2000: 3) identifies it, “a form of politics which aims to intervene in, and transform, the unequal power relations between men and women”.
Even though chick lit has been marketed as a (post-)feminist genre, which Whelehan has described as a “particular brand of popular fiction, which is seen to best represent the contemporary post-feminist universe” (Knowles, 2004: 5), the works in this field are still rooted in long-standing patriarchal beliefs, expectations and forms of social organisation. Marian Keyes’ fiction is no exception to this and contains aspects that reinforce those traditional ideas. This section is focused on those examples and extracts that reveal the pro-patriarchy facet of Keyes’ novels, showing that, despite having willingly adopted the label of ‘post-feminist fiction writer’ and deliberately defending feminist ideas , Marian Keyes integrates patriarchal discourses in her works and shows that the characters, consciously or unconsciously, have assimilated those expectations and lead their lives following the preconceptions that have historically subordinated women’s lives to the needs of men.
Strictly, the concept of ‘patriarchy’ refers to a mode of social organisation which is constructed on the basis of a family structure whose nucleus is the father or patriarch, who is responsible for the provision of welfare but is also, in exchange, in a position of superiority in relation to the other members of the family. Over the centuries and since primitive times, patriarchy “as an all-pervasive, ahistorical system” (Gamble, 2004: 293) of social organisation has conditioned the way in which men and women live and relate to each other, as well as male and female social roles. The patriarchal system has also guaranteed the domination of men over women through a series of masculinist and sexist discourses and institutions that consistently reduce women’s sphere of action and involvement in social affairs. These ideas are reflected in Lynn Segal’s (1987: 49) description of the patriarchal institution “as a social system of male domination, as the power of the father in the family, as the universal principle and symbol of male domination, or as men’s power to exchange women in order to form kinship groups”. All in all, patriarchy has significantly limited the lives of women and, over the years, women themselves have assimilated the ways of thinking that were established by its institutions, thus giving prevalence to the idea of male domination and female subordination.
Chick lit contains the all-pervasive idea that being in a relationship (and, on some occasions, getting married) is the most suitable option for women. Although Keyes’ novels reflect a negative side to marriage—Clodagh (Sushi for Beginners) feels alienated and imprisoned by marriage—the prevailing idea, all the same, is that getting married is a positive step. This suggestion is supported by the character Maggie (Angels) who, after leaving her husband in suspicion that he has been cheating on her, celebrates her choice of spending her “twenties in the safe cocoon of a marriage” (58). Despite her husband’s infidelity and the feeling of frustration brought about by the difficulties in their relationship, Maggie reaches the end of the story convinced that the security of a marriage is the greatest achievement in life. In spite of any miseries that her union might have brought with it, the prevailing message is that getting married provides further stability and satisfaction than any other alternative. Maggie, portrayed as the well-behaved sister, goes through a self-exploration process where she acts against the moral dictates with which she was brought up. Through this experience she learns the meanings of promiscuity and irresponsibility; however, these attitudes that she first considers liberated and liberating only end up providing her with guilt and a deeper appreciation of the peace of mind that marriage brings for her.
Another story of failed marriages with a similar dénouement is Lisa’s (Sushi for Beginners). In her case, her husband Oliver leaves her for being a workaholic, which results in conflicting views and general difficulties in cohabitation. Their marriage is portrayed as shallow and only based on appearances and social success; however, Lisa’s life story leads her to reshuffling her priorities, becoming less of an ambitious career woman and more of a traditional type. This attitude change is soon perceived by Oliver, who, enacting the knight in shining armour, travels to Dublin and tries to rescue his already ex-wife from her miseries, offering her a second chance:
‘I’ve come to win you back, babes.’
‘Why?’ She was confused—and oddly resentful. She&rsqup;d put a whole day’s effort into ‘moving on’ and he’d scuppered it.
‘Because you’re the best,’ he said simply.
‘You’ve left it a bit bloody late,’ she said snippily. ‘We’ve just got divorced.’
‘You know,’ he said, thoughtfully, ‘I feel so shit about that. It has messed with my head like you just would not believe! Anyway, nothing to say we can’t get married again,’ he grinned. The idea of marrying Oliver again was ludicrous but seductive. Briskly she asked, ‘Don’t you remember how horrible it was? At the end we rowed all the time and it was bitter. You hated me and my job.’
After a nervous pause he continued, ‘I still love you. Now that we’re older and wiser,’—uncertain little laugh—‘I can see it working out. The only question is, are you interested?’ How lucky was she to get a reprieve? The full extent of her sheer, jammy, good fortune revealed itself to her and she was soaring, almost weightless with happiness. Not everyone gets a chance like this, she realized, savouring—for once—the value of the present moment.
I’ll do it differently this time, she vowed fiercely. They both would. No sneaking away to Vegas this time—no, they’d do it properly. Her mum would be thrilled. (560–62)
This closing scene suggests that Lisa’s ‘wrong’ behaviour—that is to say, being more interested in her public than her private life—has been fixed and she has grown up, making it possible for Oliver to forgive her past mistakes and making their marriage viable again. In contrast with her previous states of mind during the narration, where she is depicted as a bitter, lonely woman, for the first time Lisa acknowledges a positive feeling: she is happy. Indeed, the prospect of her remarriage, paired with the promise of its success after giving in to conventional ways is her happy ending.
These examples show that Keyes’ novels convey the message that women are happier when they yield to the traditional ways of patriarchy by means of marriage and, thus, their salvation is guaranteed by leading a conventional life as part of a heterosexual couple. Love, according to chick lit, is the all-saving remedy to every ill in a woman’s existence and, as long as they are someone’s object of affection, nothing else will matter much. This idea about romance is extremely recurrent in chick lit narratives, from the most conservative trends of the genre (like Christian chick lit) to more ground-breaking representatives of the ‘chick culture’, like the television series Sex and the City, in which even a character as unconstrained and irreverent as Samantha ends up becoming part of a monogamous couple.
As a consequence of the constant quest for love, throughout the novels under examination most protagonists show a desire for stability which, apparently, can only be found in the refuge of the family—that is to say, the traditional patriarchal nucleus, either with the establishment of a family of their own—through marriage and motherhood—or, as a last resort, by returning to the parental home. Although this is not true of all chick lit—as the invisibility of the biological families of the Sex and the City protagonists illustrates, for example, families and their routines are centrally portrayed in each of Keyes’ works under examination, and the return to the familial home of at least one of the protagonists is, in all cases, a turning point in the development of the narrative. Thus, in the novels there is a strong subtext implying that a cohesive family is an essential source of stability.
In The Other Side of the Story, the core of Gemma’s family is broken because her father leaves his middle-aged wife for his younger secretary, which results in Gemma unquestioningly moving to her parents’ home to take care of her distraught mother. Although this change affects Gemma’s everyday life in several ways, from her loss of privacy to the hours spent commuting, Gemma’s willingness to stay with her mother, depicted as an extremely vulnerable and dependent being, and the mutual nourishment that their cohabitation develops, reinforces the idea that a united family is essential for the individual’s development and well-functioning. Furthermore, the restoration of order after the deserting husband’s return, together with the suggestion (through the characters’ reactions) that this was the expected outcome, invalidate any possible discourses of independence implied during the course of the story, as this extract shows:
On the eighth of January, a year to the day since he left, Dad came home. Just like that. I wasn’t there at the time, so I don’t know exactly how quickly Mam hustled him into the house and set about cooking for him, but I’d put money on it being very, very fast.
He was back and the status quo was restored before I could blink. By the time I came home from work that evening, he was settled in his chair, doing the crossword, Mam was in the kitchen cooking up a storm, and I had a moment when I genuinely wondered if I’d just dreamt the entire past year. (487)
Although Gemma does not agree with her mother’s quick forgiveness of her husband as the scene that follows this passage reflects, where Gemma asks her mother for an explanation, getting the reply “he’s my husband” (ibid.), the fact that in the long term the man’s readmission has positive consequences for all of them jeopardises all criticism that Keyes could have exercised over patriarchy in this story. Gemma’s parents’ getting back together restores the protagonist’s independence, with positive repercussions on both her career and her private life; furthermore, the later developments of the story suggest that this episode has taught Gemma the positive effects of forgiveness: after years, she finally absolves her one-time best friend Lily from the guilt of having stolen Anton, the love of her life. After that, the characters having put their conflicts to rest, their peace of mind facilitates the satisfactory conclusion of the story.
The most visible example of Keyes’ defence of the traditional family takes place in the course of four novels: Watermelon, Rachel’s Holiday, Angels and Anybody Out There?, which are related to each other by dealing with different members of one family, the Walshes. Each book is focused on one of the Walsh sisters, in a kind of ‘tetralogy’ with narrative continuity where the course of events of one novel picks up on the previous one; in this way, the story constantly develops and, in some cases, provides closure to earlier episodes. The depiction of the members of this family extends over more than ten years, the actual time between the publication of the first one of the novels in this saga (Watermelon, 1995) and the last one (Anybody Out There?, 2006). In this interval, readers obtain a profound view of the personalities of the members of this traditional Irish family, their dynamic interactions, conflicts and agreements.
The four novels share a common structure that can be identified as a representation of the traditional bildungsroman—the ‘novel of formation’, where the protagonist experiences the transition from child to adult. The protagonists of these novels (Claire, Rachel, Maggie and Anna)  each suffer a traumatic event that they cannot overcome on their own, a ‘rite of passage’ that leaves them in a state of defencelessness compelling them to return to their parents’ home, a shelter where they find their needs fulfilled thanks to their parents’ efforts. Keyes depicts a family life that is not always easy, given the strong personalities of all the characters; however, despite any frictions, the Walshes regard each other fondly and would go to any lengths in order to help each other, resulting in a very cohesive unit. When asked whether they are based on her own family, Keyes replies that “although the Walshes aren’t individually like any of us, the atmosphere is the same. We’re very close but we’re very bickery and noisy.” (Carey, 2006). This atmosphere of closeness becomes a source of stability that helps the protagonists move forward and regain control of their lives, overcoming depression and lack of self-esteem, but at the same time, the subtext of this implies that the heroines cannot cope with their problems on their own, needing the intervention of a patriarchal institution to fix them.
Another issue that contributes to the reinforcement of patriarchal discourses in chick lit is its establishment of the definition of femininity. The image of feminists that has reached many of the readers of chick lit—mostly influenced by media discourses in the backlash years—is typically anti-feminine, with the widespread stereotype that the feminists of the Second Wave mimicked male aesthetics (being bra-burning tomboys in dungarees, wearing no makeup) . As a result, the media have established a contrasting representation of womanhood reacting to this previous stereotype: a conception of femininity depicting a female type with which most women readily feel identified. Nevertheless, the maintenance of this image involves a series of obligations which have developed into a form of slavery, and femininity has been shaped into something which makes women feel uncomfortable with their bodies, which calls for demands—youth, thinness, glamour—that require a degree of perseverance, time investment and expense beyond what is considered reasonably normal. The importance placed on beauty is illustrated by Lisa in Sushi for Beginners:
Lisa was clear-eyed about her looks. In her natural state—not that she’d been in that for a very long time—she was a pretty enough girl. But with huge amounts of effort she knew she’d upgraded herself from attractive to fabulous. As well as the usual attention to hair, nails, skin, make-up and clothes, she popped huge amounts of vitamins, drank sixteen glasses of water a day, only snorted cocaine on special occasions and every six months had a botulism injection in her forehead—it paralysed the muscles and gave a lovely wrinkle-free appearance. For the past ten years she’d been constantly hungry. So hungry that she barely noticed it now. Sometimes she dreamt about eating a three-course meal, but people do the oddest things in dreams! (95)
Although this passage also echoes Keyes’ questioning of such attitudes, the fact that after such efforts Lisa is not only stunning, but also successful and enviable, simultaneously normalises a series of stereotypes that reinforce women’s obsession with appearance, which is commonplace in chick lit.
Quoting Gill and Herdieckerhoff (2006: 497), “anxiety appears in all chick lit novels we have looked at which chart a preoccupation with the shape, size and look of the body that borders on the obsessional. What is striking is not only that appearance is such a preoccupation, but that it is depicted as requiring endless work”. The anxiety of the characters is especially clear in the domain of sexuality: due to their complexes about their physical appearance, the characters are insecure and do not fully enjoy their sexuality; as Lucy says at one point in Lucy Sullivan Is Getting Married:
I suspected that if I had big bouncy breasts and long, slender, cellulite-free golden thighs, I could have overlooked my Catholic guilt. I would probably have been a lot more likely to confidently hop into bed with total strangers. Maybe sex would have been an activity that I could just enjoy, instead of it mostly being an exercise in damage control, trying to act like I was enjoying myself while at the same time managing to hide a butt that was too big, a chest that was too small, thighs that were too etc., etc. (214)
This extract shows that, as a consequence of those stereotypes of femininity established in chick lit and constantly reinforced by contemporary society through media images, women become objectified and anxious to look good, not to themselves, but to men’s eyes, to the extent that they loathe aspects about their physical appearance because men will not feel comfortable about them, as Claire’s and Rachel’s complex about their height shows . Thus, both in Marian Keyes’ novels and in chick lit, the heroines are rarely effortlessly beautiful; instead, they always feel too tall, short or fat (being too thin is rare, as it would fit the stereotype), or have too much cellulite. This leads them to cease to be owners of their own bodies and become part of the patriarchal system through the male gaze, and as a result, the female body, instead of being the physical expression of the inner self and a reason for proud self-acceptance, becomes a trap in which the character is caught, which she can only disguise and modify in order to attract Mr. Right.
As many of the fragments that I have included in the first part of this paper demonstrate, the ending of the chick lit narrative contributes to the reinforcement of patriarchal expectations. The fact that the main story line in these works is the love plot is already an indicator of the existence of a subtext that defends the traditional status quo and patriarchal ideas, so the nonnegotiable ‘happily ever after’ message in the closing only acts as final confirmation. Chick lit delivers, in most cases, the story about the victory of love—white and heterosexual, as the following passage of The Other Side of the Story shows:
When Mam met Johnny the Scrip for the first time, she took in his broad shoulders, his air of kindness, and the twinkle in his eye that is a permanent feature now that he’s no longer working around the clock, and she leaned over to me and murmured, ‘Looks like the professionals have arrived.’
She likes him. Shite.
But even that wasn’t enough to put me off him. As for Mam and Dad well, he does the crosswords and plays golf, she buys clothes and makes him guess the price, they watch murder-mysteries and go for drives. Apart from the fact I’ve had a book published and that we have access to all the surgical gauze we can eat, you’d swear he’d never been away (605–06)
This extract, together with the quotation of Sushi for Beginners about Lisa that I have included in the section ‘Marriage’, alongside other happy ending scenes, suggests that, although chick lit is marketed as the contemporary alternative to feminist fiction, has been considered the legacy of the consciousness-raising novel (Whelehan, 2005), and claims to reflect the real preoccupations of twenty-first-century women, its final purpose is commercial. The number of patriarchal discourses found in Marian Keyes’ novels reduces the credit of these works of fiction as contenders for the perpetuation of the messages of feminism; however, before making a final judgment, it is necessary to examine the messages that function towards the reinforcement of (post-)feminist ideas.
The aim of the previous section was to highlight patriarchal aspects of our culture that chick lit authors, represented by Marian Keyes, have internalised and accepted as customary. Nevertheless, although chick lit writers undeniably include and emphasise these ongoing masculinist discourses in their novels, the genre also performs the positive function of criticising aspects of this patriarchal system that it partially reinforces. Notwithstanding the ambiguities into which the texts fall, chick lit writers such as Keyes (2005) and Colgan (2001) have proclaimed that the genre’s ultimate goal is to present the problems of contemporary women in their everyday lives and to criticise female oppression. Therefore, although the feminist message is not presented in a straightforward way, the label ‘post-feminism’ responds to a series of ideological implications that can be recognised when reading the novels; thus, Whelehan (2005: 188) describes it as “an anxious genre” and, although the politics of feminism are not expressed as openly in post-feminist fiction as in earlier feminist literary genres such as the consciousness-raising novel, it is still possible to identify its ideological advances in favour of women. Still, when examining the genre it is difficult to establish a clear ideological relationship between feminism and post-feminism, and the extent to which chick lit is an implied commentary on the gains and deficiencies of feminism, since it embraces some of its claims and rejects others.
Regarding this issue, in her article ‘The “F” Word’ (2005: 148–50), Marian Keyes acknowledges uneasiness at being labelled a ‘feminist’ writer, and that her feelings towards the movement are ambivalent because, in her youth, she believed in the existence of an equal society, while viewing feminists as “shrill, hairy-legged harridans who couldn’t get a boyfriend” as well as “buzz-wreckers”. However, she describes her subsequent realisation of the still ongoing inequalities. This was when, she says, “a new word [was] invented for women like [her]—‘post-feminists’”. Keyes identifies herself with post-feminism by acknowledging that “most of us haven’t the energy to be active feminists: we’re knackered, holding down demanding jobs, getting our roots done, fighting low-level depression. We don’t have it all. We’re too busy doing it all, to have it all”; from which readers can infer that post-feminism is a movement with positive ideas but little action. Nevertheless, in this article Keyes makes a move in favour of feminism, first stating that it needs “a makeover”, but then asking the reader: “Did you know you can be a feminist and: a) wear pink, / b) have sex with men / c) enjoy a good laugh? Amazing, no? As long as you believe you’re entitled to the same rights as everyone else (i.e. men) you’re a feminist. See, that’s not so bad, is it?” (150). With this statement, Keyes is already carrying out a make-over in the readers’ perceptions by getting rid of previous negative stereotypes and establishing her definition of feminism. However, in order to determine the extent to which Keyes’ (post-)feminism is taken, it is necessary to turn to her novels and examine the discourses they contain in favour of women’s equal position in society.
Given the stereotypical profile of the protagonists, which I have already mentioned, one of the central themes in chick lit is singlehood. A large proportion of characters are single and, at their age, according to the social norm they should be looking for commitment. As I previously showed, relationships are a pivotal point in the plot of any chick lit story and, as a consequence, spinsterhood is generally not a desirable state to be in. Considering this circumstance, one would expect to get only negative depictions of singletons; however, this is not always the case, since chick lit encourages women to follow an independent life, both personally and economically. On several occasions in her novels Marian Keyes proves the corrosiveness of men and unequal relationships. In addition to these, she evidences that the protagonists’ rites of passage generate them an increase in self-confidence, besides acceptance of living with and by themselves, which results in a more positive perspective on being single overall. At specific points in her novels, Keyes makes an effort to present single women positively, as in the following passage from Rachel’s Holiday:
‘Think of what you were like a year ago,’ she sang. ‘You’d have slept with the tinker’s dog, to avoid being by yourself.’
I thought about it. And with a shock I saw that, of course, she was right. Had that really been me? That desperate creature? Dying for a boyfriend?
How things had changed.
‘Didn’t I tell you you’d get better?’ Nola demanded.
‘Stop being so smug,’ I chastised. ‘It’s unbecoming.’ But I smiled as I said it.
‘Do you know what you have?’ she asked. ‘What’s that it’s called again Oh yes—self-respect!’ (600–01)
This extract, towards the end of Rachel’s story, is set after she has rehabilitated not only from drug addiction, but also from her obsession with men and her dependent relationships. It shows how Rachel realises that she has come to terms with her own past mistakes and is at peace with herself for the first time in years; besides, to her surprise, she discovers that as a consequence of her newly discovered self-reliance, she does not want to get involved in emotional relationships and, instead, would rather stay single.
Positive portrayals of singlehood frequently appear towards the end of the narration in Keyes’ novels. This suggests that being single needs to be learned, since it is not the same as being alone. The characters have to fight against deeply assimilated patriarchal moral values, thus it is not always easy for them to believe that being single has a positive side at all. Besides their private conflicts with the idea, they have to bear with other people’s negative judgements and attitudes, like Jojo (The Other Side of the Story). This character, in spite of having an affair with her boss, is perceived by her married friends as single to all intents and purposes. This is caused by the fact that she attends their social outings on her own, and results in her friends constantly asking her when she’s going to get a boyfriend. Nevertheless, Jojo is a woman who stands up for herself and has a strong sense of self-respect, so she is capable of giving these episodes no importance. Therefore, Marian Keyes portrays single women as individuals with a strong sense of dignity and, even though singletons are sometimes depicted in unflattering terms in chick lit, Marian Keyes makes an effort to get rid of this pervasive negative image and show the positive aspects of being single.
As I noted above, the family is an important institution in chick lit. The weight that it carries in many stories, especially Marian Keyes’, is undeniable; however, other characters seem to want to establish a break from their biological families, to the extent that some chick lit protagonists have completely split up with them. For example, in Sex and the City there are no references to the four girls’ relatives , and the characters have moved away from their origins in order to establish a new identity of their own. In general, there is a marked contrast between the modern city life of the protagonists and their families’ mundane existence, which generates a need to escape, like for Lisa (Sushi for Beginners), who declares that as soon as she was eighteen she could not wait to rush away from her parents’ working-class home.
The characters establish tailor-made surrogate families made up by their group of closest friends, who have chosen each other and, as a consequence, know and understand each other at a much deeper level than biological families. This type of bond where friends act as proxy families is a frequent occurrence in Keyes’ novels, too; for instance, Lucy, Charlotte and Karen (Lucy Sullivan Is Getting Married) behave as a family unit rather than as just flatmates; likewise, Ashling, Ted and Joy (Sushi for Beginners) are each other’s surrogate family, which gets together at times of crisis; finally, Katherine, Tara, Fintan and Liv (Last Chance Saloon) are of utmost importance for each other’s lives, as the following passage shows. In it, we can see how the surrogate family is not only influential, but decisive at the time of choosing partners. In this case, Fintan’s relationship with his boyfriend Sandro is idyllic because Sandro gets on well with the girls:
‘Do you want to go to Katherine’s later?’
Sandro nodded enthusiastically. That was another reason that Fintan and Sandro worked so well. Fintan came as a package deal with Tara and Katherine—love me, love my friends—and Fintan had once dumped a potential love interest because he’d taken violently against Katherine, exclaiming, ‘She’s so anal.’ (82–83)
Hence, in chick lit, friends are not only the social circle with which to go out and be entertained; they are those who are always there, without reserves, providing a helping hand, useful advice, or even shelter, in difficult situations.
In summary, friends are the first alternative that the protagonists resort to in order to clear out their uncertainties, while partners are the originators of conflict. Whenever a protagonist is faced with man trouble, her friends close ranks around her to fend off suffering, becoming an urban version of her family. In Keyes’ novels, both friends and biological family work in a similar way towards the recovery of the protagonists’ welfare; however, the main difference is that the relationship with their kin is more uptight than the bond with the urban proxy family. Thus, chick lit provides an alternative to the traditional familial unit, in which males are at the core of the group, underpinning patriarchy. Furthermore, through this substitution the genre defies traditional gender roles and makes them more fluid, presenting male friends with stereotypically ‘feminine’ attributes, that is to say, who listen, offer advice and show a tender and comforting side.
Womanhood and Anxiety
As I have argued, beauty is a major theme in chick lit and the genre reflects how the mass media and advertising have greatly contributed to the establishment of a stereotype of femininity that is closer to the ideals of patriarchy than to the precepts of feminism. Naomi Wolf (1991) argues that women have been made anxious and uncomfortable about their looks through a flood of cultural images of perfection that are far from the real female body. According to Wolf, the images of glamour and beauty presented by the media are not harmful in themselves, what is negative is that they make other images of womanhood invisible; in this sense, on some occasions ‘chick culture’ is an accomplice of this backlash: if we look at the protagonists of ‘chick television’, like Ally McBeal (Calista Flockhart) and Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker), or any other protagonist of Sex and the City they are closer to idealistic physical stereotypes than to average, ‘real’ women.
However, on occasions, chick lit incites the readers’ reflection about the relativity of beauty and the worth of the sacrifices that the current stereotypes require, criticising today’s obsession with thinness and showing the level of unhappiness this fixation involves. Many characters in Marian Keyes’ novels subject themselves to strict diets , and the novels often contain illustrations of women’s exaggerated concern to look young, thin and pretty, although the author’s disapproval becomes implicit through the amplification of those situations. Keyes’ criticism towards the dictatorship of the stereotypes of beauty is openly expressed through Jojo Harvey (The Other Side of the Story), frequently described as a magnificent woman, a big girl with curves resembling Jessica Rabbit . Despite her size, Jojo has no complexes about her looks; on the contrary, she is proud of them and unable to understand why other people frown upon her appetite. Jojo’s attitude awakens admiration in the women who meet her, calling forth the following reactions in other women:
Jojo was a big girl but she was gorgeous. Luscious and ripe in those fabulous black trousers and clingy burgundy top, her décolletage and shoulders satin-smooth and luminous. But it was the way Jojo seemed so comfortable in her own skin that most entranced Cecily. To the point where she’d wondered tentatively about cancelling her gym membership. Even—dammit!—eating whatever she wanted. If it worked for this Jojo, couldn’t it work for her?
Occasionally this happened to women around Jojo. While they were with her, they saw through the advertising industry’s lies and believed that size didn’t matter, that it was intangibles like joie de vivre and confidence that counted. (133)
Jojo, instead of having complexes and hiding or wanting to modify her non-conforming size, which is far from current stereotypes, transmits a public image of pride, being “so comfortable in her own skin” that other women want to be like her, ignoring “the advertising industry’s lies” and establishing a new stereotype that is closer to the realities of the female body. With her curves, Jojo is not only a sexy woman, but she also breaks the mould of stereotypes by oozing self-confidence, which makes her likeable for both men and women.
Another instance where Keyes criticises women’s excessive preoccupation with their physical appearance is her substantiation that women are never happy about their looks by showing that, among the five Walsh sisters, four have complexes, envying the others for having what they lack. In this way, Claire, Rachel and Maggie, being tall, are jealous of their younger siblings Anna and Helen for being small “like kittens”; on the other hand, Anna begrudges her sisters their height and visibility. Helen is the only one who feels comfortable with her looks, although the fact that she is highly successful with men should not only be attributed to her beauty, but also to her self-reliant attitude. Consequently, Keyes emphasises that women who become obsessed over their bodies are not happy and, thus, problematises the notion that beauty can make women happy by guaranteeing their professional and emotional success.
Chick lit, as a cultural genre with feminism in its background, tries to get rid of the stereotypes promoted by the backlash discourses which traditionally depicted feminists as “shrill, overly aggressive, man-hating, ball-busting, selfish, hairy, extremist, deliberately unattractive women with no sense of humo[u]r” (Douglas, 1994: 7). In order to eradicate these ideas, Keyes strives to portray her most feminist characters as naturally attractive women who are successful with men. Besides Jojo, Claire Walsh is another strongly feminist character, aware of her duty to contribute to the struggle for women’s advance in society, as her discourses of vindication show throughout the novels in the Walsh series, especially in Anybody Out There?. Therefore, chick lit in general and Marian Keyes in particular endeavour to show the processes through which women’s beauty has been excessively mythologized and they subtly try to play down the importance of looks as a measure of female worth.
The Right to Choose
Although Keyes’ stories frequently finish with a ‘happily ever after’ message, in her novels the writer reinforces the idea of choice. The protagonists’ rite of passage and their subsequent coming of age helps them appreciate their value and have more self-respect; this, in turn, gives them a more discerning personality about themselves and the people with whom they surround themselves. Therefore, before choosing a partner, the characters place higher expectations on men, as the previously quoted extracts have shown. This is reflected in Lucy’s (Lucy Sullivan Is Getting Married), Tara’s (Last Chance Saloon), Rachel’s (Rachel’s Holiday) and Claire’s (Watermelon) cases. These characters have very low self-esteem at the beginning of their stories and would tolerate oppression and humiliation from a man as long as they could have him in their lives, but they are gradually taught their worth and the appreciation that they are entitled to a choice. The following passage from Watermelon shows Claire’s acceptance of her circumstances at the end of the story, where she becomes a divorced, working mother:
My marriage had broken up, but I had a beautiful child. I had a wonderful family, very good friends and a job to go back to. Who knew, one day, I might even meet a nice man who wouldn’t mind taking Kate on as well as me. Or if I waited long enough maybe Kate would meet a nice man who wouldn’t mind taking me on as well as her. But in the meantime I had decided that I was just going to get on with my life and if Mr. Perfect arrived along, I’d manage to make room for him somewhere. If only things hadn’t turned out this way. If only things had never gone wrong.
But they had.
Tearful eleventh-hour reunions are the stuff of Mills and Boon. They rarely happen in real life. (565–66)
This quotation could summarise the post-feminist attitude that Keyes vindicates: the possibility for young women to adopt alternative lifestyles that do not conform to what the traditional patriarchal ideology dictates as ‘functional’. Claire is not married any more, but instead of perceiving herself as a failure, she asserts herself with pride. She feels gifted with what she has, giving more importance to the gains than to the losses that her divorce has brought about. This self-reliant attitude is what capacitates Claire to make the best choices for herself, and is presented as the basic ingredient for the advance for women’s attainment of equal rights in contemporary society.
Chick lit and post-feminism have succeeded in making contemporary young women aware of the ongoing difficulties that still exist in their everyday lives. Despite the genre’s patriarchal messages, by showing examples of how society still places pressure on females the genre exposes that equality has not been attained, subtly criticising women’s assumption that the struggle is over. By depicting the everyday lives of contemporary young women and addressing a very clear type of readership, chick lit not only covers a market niche and fulfils a commercial purpose; it also sends readers a hopeful message evidencing that they are not alone in their struggles, that they are not the only ones faced with discrimination, high expectations and assumptions about their lifestyle. Notwithstanding its ambiguous ideological implications, chick lit ultimately tells the female reader to choose what is best for her, ignoring oppressive external influences. Thus, returning to the initial question, is chick lit representative of the discourses of feminism, or does it ultimately conform to patriarchal ideologies and have an exclusively commercial purpose?, the answer is a ‘yes, but ’. If we take into account the messages that it contains, chick lit is representative of some of the discourses of feminism, self-consciously denouncing negative aspects in contemporary women’s lives, but it is not a feminist genre per se due to its lack of political intent. Therefore, the genre reinforces some traditional assumptions about the social roles of women, while simultaneously exercising negative criticism over the excessive condescension of patriarchy with these selfsame young women.
As a whole, these contradictory elements show that Marian Keyes’ novels and, by extension, chick lit and post-feminism, do not make a final decision in ideological terms, as they mainly deal with choices. As can be inferred from the open endings of these novels, the writers refuse to provide definite political responses so that the reader encounters finales with blank spaces left for reflection and decision-making. The most feminist issue presented in these novels is a staunch defence of women’s right to choose; consequently, the final message of chick lit is that it is up to the reader to decide whether to accept things as given by patriarchy and take for granted that the situation of women is fine as it is, ignoring the critical messages included in the books; or, otherwise, to feel identified with the negative situations presented and, therefore, become aware that women’s struggle is not over yet. As a result, the fact that chick lit is open to choice both conforms to patriarchal expectations and simultaneously exposes the pitfalls of this system.
Chick lit demonstrates that, while women have reached social positions and objectives that were unthinkable at the beginning of the twentieth century, they are still victims of inequalities that prove that patriarchy still pervades their lives, conditioning the way they live and the choices they make. Patriarchal assumptions, therefore, permeate the genre and can be seen shaping the lives of the troubled protagonists of even the more progressive texts. In conclusion, chick lit is still haunted by the ghost of patriarchy, but at least it highlights the importance of choice and self-definition for women, without renouncing love and family. It also shows that, while feminism is not the panacea that its earlier practitioners hoped it would be, the movement achieved some of its goals, and still provides an agenda to rely on in a context in which equality is not yet prevalent in all areas. If nothing else, chick lit makes women aware of the state of affairs and, even though it does not provide solutions, it manages to expose the problems that patriarchy gives rise to, while at the same time undermining the complacency of those women who think there is nothing left to fight for.
1 This shows, for example, in the press release reporting the sales of Penguin Group in 2007, in which Marian Keyes’ novel Anybody Out There? is rated as the second best selling book of the publishers in the United Kingdom. Other references to the profitability of the genre can be found in Knowles (2004), Ferriss and Young (2006: 192–4) and Jones (2008).
2 Defined as “a group of mostly American and British popular culture media forms focused primarily on twenty- to thirtysomething middle-class women. The most prominent chick cultural forms are chick lit and chick TV programming, although other pop culture manifestations such as magazines, blogs, music—even car designs and energy drinks—can be included.” (Ferriss and Young 2008: 1–2).
3 Said success has been enlarged by the establishment of sub-genres that cater for the audiences which would not have felt directly represented by those first generic types: ethnick lit, mum lit, hen lit, lad lit, teen chick lit, etc. An extensive explanation of the characteristics of these sub-genres can be found in the introduction to Chick Lit: The New Woman’s Fiction (Ferriss and Young, 2006).
4 The issue of reader response in popular fiction has generated extensive and complex discussions such as Modleski’s (1982) and Radway’s (1984), both about the function of romantic novels. However, this topic is beyond the scope of the present paper, which focuses on text rather than audience, and revolves around the identification of the dominant ideological readings of the genre. Even though—based on the critical sources I have used for my examination—I presume that readers have an active role in the interpretation of the messages presented in these texts, this debate is beyond the objectives of my current discussion. For further information on reader response theories, see Sara Mills’ Gendering the Reader (1994).
5 These can be found in abundance, for example, in the two Bridget Jones novels, where popular brand names (Marks and Spencer, Debenhams), successful television programmes (for instance, the Pride and Prejudice miniseries produced by the BBC), and events such as Tony Blair’s election are mentioned.
6 This examination excludes Keyes’ latest novel, This Charming Man (May 2008) because the preliminary research for this piece had already finalised on its publication date.
8 The New Oxford American Dictionary defines ‘chick’ as “(informal, chiefly derogatory) a young woman.”
9 American chewing gum brand commercialised by Cadbury Adams. The word ‘chiclet’, however, has its etymological origin (tzictli) in Aztec dialects and its stem has remained in languages like Spanish (chicle) or Portuguese (chiclete) to refer to this kind of confectionery; therefore the relationship resonates more clearly among speakers of these languages, like myself.
10 This is evidenced when browsing the Amazon.co.uk web page, where ‘chick lit’ is the most common way of designating the genre in reader reviews; also, the Listmania! section of said page includes several reader-created lists of favourite chick lit books. Additionally, web pages about the genre with names such as Chicklit.co.uk (www.chicklit.co.uk), Chicklit Club (www.chicklitclub.com) or Chick Lit Books (http://chicklitbooks.com) are popular on the net among readers.
11 With Christine de Pizan’s defence of the social role of women.
12 Keyes explains her positioning towards feminism and post-feminism in her article ‘The “F” Word’, originally published in Marie Claire magazine and later included in the non-fiction collection Further Under the Duvet (published in the United States under the title Cracks in My Foundation: Bags, Trips, Make-Up Tips, Charity, Glory, and the Darker Side of the Story). Also, on the issue Keyes has declared: “my feminist side has awakened for the first time. It’s weird. I’ve grown up quite happy to call myself a post-feminist, but thinking that feminism was a dirty word.” (Agnew, n.d.)
13 The adjective ‘ground-breaking’ makes specific reference to the television version of Sex and the City, not the film. I have omitted any references to the screen versions of both Bridget Jones and Sex and the City because, although they are adaptations of chick lit, it is my firm belief that those films are deeply entrenched with the genre of the romantic comedy and, therefore, the analysis of their politics operates within a different set of parameters.
14 There is a fifth Walsh sister, Helen, who has not yet had a novel published where she is the protagonist.
15 See ‘The “F” Word’ (2005).
16 In Rachel’s Holiday, Rachel remembers a scene of her teens where Claire, older than her, instructs her “Don’t walk tall, don’t hold your head up if you ever want a boyfriend”, to which she says “Well, of course I wanted a boyfriend, I wanted that more than anything in the whole world, so I listened to what she had to tell me.” (117).
17 Except for the references to Charlotte’s brother (Episode 27, Season Two, ‘Shortcomings’) and to Miranda’s mother (Episode 56, Season Four, ‘My Motherboard, My Self’).
18 For instance, Emily (Angels), Lisa (Sushi for Beginners) and Rachel (Rachel’s Holiday).
19 An iconic and sexy red-haired cartoon character, characterised by her curves, who plays the leading female role of Who Framed Roger Rabbit (Dir. Robert Zemeckis, 1988).
20 All the sisters agree that Anna and Helen are almost twins; nevertheless, they do not have the same amount of success with men.
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