Each of the authors works in the School of Psychology, Social Work and Social Policy at the University of South Australia.
Margaret Rowntree has a Master of Public Health and is a PhD student, whose dissertation is titled Tri-millennium Sexualities: Representations, Lives and Daydreams.
Lia Bryant and Nicole Moulding are Senior Lecturers in the school.
Volume 24, May 2011
Throughout the first decade of the tri-millennium women have continued to read chick lit and watch chick flicks, a genre of fiction and film first emerging in the mid-1990s. In this article we explore whether the genre’s sustained reading is consistent with the main contention in chick lit and chick flick scholarship that its appeal is in the way it reflects messy but accurate aspects of women’s contemporary everyday experiences, including sexual experiences. We contribute to this body of knowledge by reporting on an empirical study which forefronts the missing voices of women who may or may not be resolute fans. Following Raymond Williams’ (1977, 1979) work on ‘structures of feeling’, and drawing from a body of knowledge known as the sociology of emotions, we explore the affective space of women’s experiences of the chick genre and its feminine sexual representations. The data from an anonymous on-line survey of forty-one women living in Australia reveal that many of them have contradictory emotional experiences. This ambivalence is theorised.
Chick lit and chick flicks is a genre that some women have readily sought out to read (and view) over the last decade and a half. A progeny of chick lit publications and chick flick productions have spawned in the wake of Helen Fielding’s wildly successful 1996 novel Bridget Jones’s Diary (BJD) and its 2001 filmic parallel, usually considered by scholars as the genesis of the genre (Ferriss and Young 2006a). Despite its popularity, feminist scholarship of the genrehas only emerged since the turn of the 21st century, and in a concerted way since 2006 (Ferriss and Young 2006a, 2008; Genz and Brabon 2009; Gill and Herdieckerhoff 2006; Smith 2008; Whelehan 2000, 2002, 2004, 2005). This attention has focused broadly on understanding the genre’s appeal to women and more specifically on what its representations, including feminine sexual representations, might reflect about the contemporary world for women in western countries in particular.
For the most part, the first flush of chick lit novels and their chick flick adaptations tell a coming-of-age story about a single, white, middle class, thirtyish woman as she navigates her way through the trials and tribulations of daily urban life, a primary one being the pressure of meeting a suitable heterosexual partner (Whelehan 2000). As the chick protagonist finds her way through these everyday obstacles, the reader or viewer feels as though she gets to know her well by gaining intimate insight into her mind in its various psychological states through the use of first person devices, such as the diary, the inner monologue or voice over (Genz and Brabon 2009). These soliloquies, though, are no deep meaningful cogitations, but rather light-hearted musings full of self-deprecating humour about her own personal foibles (Ferriss and Young 2006b). Writers of the genre argue that the use of wry humour is a foil to addressing quite serious contemporary subjects that matter to women, such as body image, grief, miscarriage, divorce, mental health, sexuality and a range of addictions (Harmer 2005).
Into its second decade, the genre continues to adopt first person narrative styles, but its protagonists may be just as likely ‘angsting’ over dilemmas to do with motherhood or divorce, as to do with ‘snagging a man’. In a journalistic piece for The Age, Wendy Harmer claims that the chick narrative is simply one about a flawed heroine’s rite of passage as she seeks a resolution to a problem she faces; certainly Mr Right is in the mix but the heroine may ‘find him, lose him, or more often these days, realise he is not essential to happiness after all’ (2005). So successful is the formula, that the genre has been subsequently appropriated by women across social axes of age, race, and nationality in particular (Ferriss and Young 2006a).
In terms of feminine sexual representations, the genre is thought to distinguish itself from previous romance by addressing women as active sexual players (Mabry 2006). Certainly, in contrast to previous cardinal romance conventions, heroines are permitted more than one sexual partner, albeit as serial monogamy, and permitted to experience rather than merely anticipate sexual pleasure (Kiernan 2006). Indeed, according to Gill and Herdieckerhoff (2006) a robust sexual appetite is one of the requirements of femininity in these texts. Despite these rewritings of the romance, Gill and Herdieckerhoff’s study of chick lit texts reveals that the sexual jouissance the heroine experiences when she finally meets her man is so exceptional that it is as though she is transformed into a ‘neo-virgin’, thereby obliterating all previous tarnished sexual encounters (2006: 499). The endurance of the cultural representation that women’s sexuality is most meaningful within a monogamous, heterosexual, romantic relationship has led these same critics to wonder if this is what women ‘really’ desire. An answer in the affirmative would then, presumably, challenge those feminist visions that seek to invoke new sexual paradigms (hooks 1984).
Missing from current feminist analyses of the chick genre are empirical studies of women as readers (and viewers). We aim to contribute to current feminist conversations about the genre’s appeal and its feminine sexual representations by drawing on women’s responses to one question in an anonymous on-line survey that asked: Could you say why you enjoy, hate or have mixed feelings towards chick lit or chick flicks or both? The survey is part of a larger study examining the intersections and interstices between sexual representations, sexual experiences and sexual daydreams of women living in this place Australia, at this time 2010.
We begin by reviewing what scholars of chick lit and chick flicks have written about the genre’s appeal, juxtaposing these understandings against those by critics who denounce it. Then, drawing on Raymond Williams’s (1977) work on ‘structures of feeling’ and on a body of knowledge known as the sociology of emotions, we argue the value of exploring emotional experience in social research (Lupton 1998). Next we introduce the analysis by comparing theembodied, emotional experience of the genre by one of us (Marg) with those of other researchers of women’s genres, followed by an examination of the affective space of emotional expression in readers’ responses to the survey question.
According to Ferriss and Young (2006a, 2008), the editors of two anthologies of essays titled Chick lit: The new woman’s fiction and Chick flicks: Contemporary women at the movies, the genre attracts highly polarised responses. Based mainly on a review of a light hearted chick lit quiz in the Baltimore City Paper in 2003, these editors claim that the genre does not appeal to those who read it as promoting conservative attitudes and roles for women but does appeal to those who read it as a liberating form of entertainment that helps women deal with everyday contemporary issues (2006a: 1). They further propose that such opposing emotional responses are based on a generational split with younger women finding the genre enjoyable and friendly and older women feeling alienated from its representations (Ferris and Young 2006b). It is likely, however, that differences between women who do or don’t find the genre appealing are more complex than age or generational divide alone (Lumby 1997).
Fielding, as author of BJD, is very clear that realism is at the core of the genre’s success. She states that she happened to harness the zeitgeist of the times and merely ‘represents women as they actually are in the age in which they are living’ (cited in Ferriss and Young 2006a: 9). Here Fielding is suggesting that Bridget is typical of the single young heterosexual urban woman she coins the ‘singleton’, who comes of age knowing she has a right to a career and a satisfying heterosexual relationship but finds them no easy matter to balance (Whelehan 2000). In a ‘that’s me’ moment of recognition, readers are interpellated into the narrative seeing themselves in the life of the main character as she oscillates between these competing aspirations (Whelehan 2002: 55).
Subsequent authors of chick lit and its dedicated fans are in no doubt that the genre’s charm lies with women specifically identifying with the protagonist’s fallibility and finding an authenticity in it (Ferris and Young 2006a). Chick lit author Jennifer Weiner is quoted in Sydney’s Sun Herald that her books draw from ‘the raw material of my life and my friends’ lives, and readers’ lives, whipped into a meringue of fiction’ (Maier 2007). Marian Keyes is another author who agrees that the genre speaks about life as it ‘really’ is for a certain generation of women. In an interview for bookreporter.com, she explains:
Chick lit uses humor to reflect life back to us. It's a very comforting genre, and it's the first time our generation has had a voice’ (Patrick 2004).
While Harmer (2005) agrees that the genre is able to laugh at itself, she emphasises that it deals with serious matters that concern women, as already outlined.
Many scholars agree with popular commentators on the reasons for the appeal of chick lit. For example, Whelehan (2002) speculates that its longevity is in its capacity to continue to say something important about a wide range of pertinent issues that produce anxiety for women. More specifically, she pinpoints the crux of the anxietyas being about tensions between feminism and femininity, and feminism and heterosexuality:
Bridget Jones became a bestseller because women recognized within its irony their own experiences … especially the tensions between the lure of feminist politics and the fear of losing one’s femininity [involving a] perception of the incompatibility of feminism with having a meaningful heterosexual relationship. (2000: 151)
While Genz and Brabon (2009) agree that chick heroines are often seen uneasily negotiating feminist and feminine interests, they insist that the singleton, as a postfeminist figure, can be viewed productively. As a ‘conflicted actor’ (2009: 39), she is one who
vacillates between anxiety and assertiveness, feminist and feminine desires, contradictory subjectivity – expresses pains and pleasures of [a] problematic quest for personal and romantic pursuits. (Genz 2009: 138)
Indeed, it is these contradictory characteristics of the heroines, such as ‘bold’, ‘ambitious’, ‘witty’ and sexy’ on the one hand, and then ‘shallow’, ‘overly compulsive’, ‘neurotic’ and ‘insecure’ on the other that, according to these thinkers, resonate with readers (Genz and Brabon 2009: 86).
In sum, scholars of chick lit and chick flicks generally understand that the genre’s appeal is in its capacity to capture and then reflect back tensions within women’s contemporary lives and heterosexual relationships. If this mirror metaphor holds weight with authors, fans, and scholars alike, it is certainly met with disdain by a number of feminist literary critics. This other side of the story is well captured in the following excerpt from Norah Vincent in National Review:
…is this what’s become of the sexual revolution?...It seems that the whiny, feckless Bridget…is not quite the daughter feminists were hoping for back in the Seventies when they marched on Washington and burned their bras…With deceptive simplicity Miss Fielding has held a mirror up to nature. She has nailed the liberated vixen for the cream puff she is, and if you’re one of the millions of working girls who read this novel with any glimmer of recognition, then she has nailed you, too. (1998: 49-50)
The focus in our empirical study on the emotional experiences of respondents draws on a body of work known as the sociology of emotions. This sociological movement understands emotions as the crucial missing link between personal and public issues, and between other dualisms of western thought that seek to separate mind from body, and nature from culture (Holland 2007: 196). It is a perspective that advocates ‘bringing the body back in’ to social analyses, arguing that embodied emotional experiences are a rich source of data for understanding the phenomena of the world (Lupton 1998: 31). Burkitt suggests that
emotions are best thought of as complexes that … have meaning only in the context of [social] relations’… Emotions are complexes because they are products of both the body and discourse yet are reducible to neither.(2002: 153)
Raymond Williams makes a similar point in his work on ‘structures of feeling’, a term he coined to recognise the cultural emotional tenor of a historical period:
We are talking about characteristic elements of impulse, restraint and tone; specifically affective elements of consciousness and relationships: not feeling against thought, but thought as felt and feeling as thought: practical consciousness of a present kind, in a living and interrelating continuity. (1977: 132)
He suggests that ‘structures of feeling’ are lived as ‘a certain kind of disturbance or unease, a particular type of tension’ before they become discursive social consciousness (1979: 168). Moreover, they often play out as ambivalences under which are ‘contradictory affective forms of identification and affective force’ (McNay 2004: 177). Thus, by exploring the affective space of women’s responses to the chick genre and its sexual imagery, it is possible to gain insight into the present lived mood of a historical moment that may not be yet fully articulated. Furthermore, within this perspective the particular emotion that a person experiences is thought to reflect the structure of the power relations in which they are involved (Barbalet 2002). Put another way, emotions provide a portal through which to view the power arrangements of current social relationships. It is this astute feature that makes the study of emotions so valuable for social researchers.
We begin this investigation with one of us (Marg) reflecting on her emotional experiences of the genre. While holidaying, Marg had inadvertently bought a chick lit novel titled Anybody Out There by Marian Keyes (2007). Characteristic of the genre, the novel provided a humorous look at quite serious subject matter about how a white middle class woman around the age of thirty comes to terms with the death of her husband through a series of reminiscences on their courtship and marriage. Finding the read engaging, Marg delved further into other works of Keyes and other chick lit authors, then explored the academic literature on the genre, and finally embarked upon research about it. Not as straight forward as this account suggests, like other feminist researchers of women’s genres she was troubled by feelings other than enjoyment. To illustrate the matter, she was particularly mortified when asked about her research topic by members of a ‘proper’ book-club she had been invited to join.
Quite simply, Marg’s feelings of discomfort may be to do with an awareness of the genre’s ‘low brow’ status and with concerns about what a feminist should and shouldn’t read. However, she is aware when reading of one moment applauding the heroine when as ‘bad girl’ she’s out there having the time of her life, and in the next cringing when as ‘good girl’ she is worrying about being too forward in the date department, jeopardizing her chances of catching her man. So Marg’s emotional experiences of feminine sexual representations in the genre are quite mixed. Rather than either loving or hating the genre as claimed in the chick lit scholarship, she experiences both conflicting emotions simultaneously.
A number of feminist researchers have referred to this state of emotional conflict, or ambivalence, towards the women’s genre they are investigating (Brunsdon 2000; Sheridan 1995; Winship 1987). In reflecting upon her emotional experience of researching women’s magazines, Winship writes:
And I knew I couldn’t be the only feminist who was a “closet” reader. …That didn’t mean I wasn’t critical of them. I was (and am) but it was just that double edge – my simultaneous attraction and rejection – which seem[s] to be a real nub of feminist concern. (1987: xiii)
Very similar is Sheridan, who actually names her emotional experience during her study of the Australian Women’s Weekly as one of ‘ambivalence – between enjoyment and revulsion, pleasure and critique … an ambivalence which seems to come from occupying multiple reading positions’(1995: 96). Brunsdon (2000) locates her ambivalence between her positions as consumer and feminist. She reflects on the process of studying soap operas as one in which she as the ‘feminist academic investigates her abandoned or fictional other – the female consumer of popular culture, almost as a way of studying those pleasures that have had feminist disapproval’ (2000: 5). So we could say that the ambivalence that these researchers have experienced is between simultaneous contradictory emotions that on the one hand are sourced from pleasure (jouissance) in the text itself, and on the other hand are sourced from a feminist inspired evaluation about the text as politically incorrect pleasure. Indeed, Gaines (1990) has observed that this question about what is correct pleasure is at the heart of much feminist film criticism.
The sample for our study comprises forty-one women recruited via flyers displayed at a university campus in South Australia and distributed through the researchers’ email networks as a form of internet snowballing. Of the total sample, thirty-two women reside in South Australia and nine in other states of Australia. All except three women who migrated from European countries are born in Australia.Twenty-two women are under and nineteen over thirty-five. Thirty-three women describe their sexual orientation or preference as heterosexual, two as lesbian, three as bisexual, one as transsexual, and one as ‘fluid’.While most respondents have professional qualifications or are in the process of gaining them, it is relevant to note that the student profile of the sponsoring university is more socio-economically diverse than others in the state. Nonetheless, the homogeneity of high educational levels no doubt accounts for sound understandings about feminism by respondents and the articulation of feminist identities by some of them. The sharing of feminist understandings among the sample assisted respondents to critique chick lit. While we did not initially purposively sample or screen for this form of homogeneity it proved a useful basis from which women could discuss the genre and raise any feelings of ambivalence.
To reiterate, the starting point for our analysis involved examining emotional expressions within the data. In the responses that illustrate our findings we draw attention to these emotions by highlighting them in italics. In particular, we were looking for evidence that supported, or otherwise, the main contention in the literature about the genre’s appeal as a ‘mirror’ reflecting key facets of women’s contemporary lives and sexual relationships (Ferriss and Young 2006a, 2008). Forty of the forty-one women in this survey expressed feelings of enjoyment in reading the genre. However, the initial foray into the data suggested that differences might emerge depending upon whether this enjoyment is unqualified or ambivalent. Hence the data was re-examined within these two clusters. Despite the risk of unduly pigeon-holing respondents, we provide individual socio-demographic profiles in order to illustrate the diversity amongst them. We begin with women’s unqualified enjoyment in the genre.
Just thirteen respondents (three under and eight over thirty-five, with the ages of two unknown) report enjoying the genre without reservation, although their responses indicate they are not necessarily devoted fans. While not consistent with scholarship that the genre appeals more to a younger generation of women, this sample is far too small to draw firm conclusions on this matter.
The claim by scholars, writers and fans of the genre that its appeal is in its capacity to reflect back realistic aspects of the heroine’s flawed character and the compromising situations she encounters is not central in the reasons given by respondents who wholeheartedly enjoy chick lit or chick flicks or both. In contrast, they tend not to take the genre too seriously, emphasising its value as enjoyable entertainment. Wendy puts it this way:
Quite enjoy these movies as most of them I feel are made tongue-in-cheek for the audience to enjoy. Of the films listed I have never read the books but have seen the movies several times and enjoy them each and every time.
(36-40 age group, heterosexual, clerical work, resides at Woodanilling WA, born in country WA)
Like a number of women in this cluster, Jackie links her enjoyment with escapism:
I love the escapist nature of chick lit. It takes me back to a simpler world. Sometimes I despair over how heterosexist they are BUT it is also a relief to moan and groan and still enjoy it anyway. My feelings aren't mixed; I simply enjoy the books or films for what they are. This is despite my 'professional hat' of counsellor, activist and lecturer with a critical feminist framework.
(41-45 age group, fluid sexuality (uncomfortable with bi-sexual description) professional, resides in QLD and born in country NSW)
Whehelan (2002) suggests that the reading of chick lit for escapism may also be a way of dismissing the genre or distancing one’s intellectual self from it. However, for Jackie her emphasis is on pleasure and simplicity by escaping to a place reminiscent of earlier less complicated times. She contradicts the literature in this field, which argues that the genre reflects complex aspects of contemporary life for women. Nonetheless, the value of escapism has long been a recognised feature of reading romance and watching soap opera (Brunsdon 2000; Radway 1984). Indeed, the women in Radway’s study told her that reading romancewas an ‘act of independence’ enabling them to escape their responsibilities to husband and children for a while (1984: 213). Forced to relinquish her preoccupation with the text, Radway conceded significance to the context. Our findings similarly support the recognition that cultural consumption is rooted in social life, even if it is to escape that social life.
Caroline’s response highlights another component of the genre’s appeal for some women – the pleasure of the fantasy story that puts reality in suspension:
I suppose I enjoy them because they are all based around the sort of Cinderella story where they find their Prince Charming. [They are] probably sexist but still fun to watch and dream.
(18-25 age group, heterosexual, sales work/student, resides at Onkaparinga SA, born in Adelaide SA)
Her response also illustrates two aspects to enjoying fantasy: the first is the content of the fantasy story itself, or what is watched; while the second is the act of fantasising or what she expresses as dreaming. This distinction is also noted by Ang, who argues that while the content of the soap opera Dallas is ‘inclined to conservatism,’ it is ‘the act of fantasizing itself’ that is liberating for its readers (1985: 134-35).
Regardless of whether respondents use chick lit and chick flicks to escape from everyday life or to fantasise about a different life, they emphasise the genre’s positive impact on their emotional wellbeing. The response by Lenny is illustrative:
Even though you know it is not real, it is nice to sometimes get away from the "real world" and watch something that just makes you feel good (and secretly hope that this may happen in the real world to someone).
(18-25 age group, heterosexual, social service work, resides and born at Port Augusta, SA)
The way in which the genre makes respondents feel good is a theme that runs through the data from those who enjoy it without qualification. In Lenny’s case, it enables her to feel optimistic about real life’s possibilities. It is almost as though Lenny knows it is a rash emotion but relishes it privately anyway. Once again, this is reminiscent of how the women in Radway’s study carefully select romances that
will make them feel happy and hold out the promise of utopian bliss, a state that they willingly acknowledge is to be rare in the real world but one, nevertheless, that they do not want to relinquish as a conceptual possibility.(1984: 100)
What the feel good read does for women in Radway’s study and ours is to address emotional needs not met in their intimate relationships. More significantly, women are themselves in control of meeting these needs as Lucy explains:
I enjoy having an easy read - not reading anything too challenging or depressing, as this fits in with my needs at this point in my life (working & bringing up a baby!). Also, I like the predictability of a happy ending - something that you don't get (or at least can't rely on) elsewhere in life.
(36-40 age group, heterosexual, professional, resides at St Peters SA., born in Brisbane QLD)
The last point that we want to make about this cluster of respondents who enjoy the genre fully is that they are not inclined to dwell on or worry about the effect of representations. This ability has already been shown by Caroline who wrote ‘probably sexist but still fun to watch and dream’ and by Jackie who wrote ‘Sometimes I despair over how heterosexist they are BUT it is also a relief to moan and groan and still enjoy it anyway.’ They are able to turn off their inner feminist critic, so to speak. In sum, there is little evidence in the data from this cluster of respondents to support the main contention in the literature that women identify with protagonists and the realistic aspects of their situations. For this group of women the genre’s appeal is not the ‘that’s me’ factor, but rather to do with escaping from the real world or escaping into a fantasy world, or both. Lucy succinctly puts it:
Escapism is important for this genre!
A much larger cluster of twenty-seven respondents (fourteen under and eleven over thirty-five, with the ages of two more women unknown) express mixed feelings towards the chick genre. Again, this breakdown of figures, while not statistically significant, is inconsistent with the notion of a generational divide in the genre’s appeal. For respondents in this larger cluster, reading chick lit or watching chick flicks is a contradictory emotional experience. Tamara’s response is exemplary:
I enjoy them because you are guaranteed a happy feel-good ending, but some of them definitely make me cringe! [They] are definitely a guilty pleasure. I sometimes don’t understand how I can enjoy reading such predictable, tacky and utterly unrealistic nonsense!
(18-25 age group, heterosexual student, resides at Woodville SA , born in Adelaide SA)
Here we see Tamara watching herself reading romances and feeling totally foolish. Modleski surmises that this kind of self-ridicule is a form of internalised ‘masculine contempt for sentimental (feminine) “drivel”’ (1982: 14). However, we also underline the word ‘unrealistic’ in her excerpt as a clue to her guilt. It is almost as if she thinks and feels it is morally wrong to read texts that are not grounded more in reality. This guilt is possibly a hangover from early second wave feminist calls for more realistic media representations (Greer 1971; Millett 1971). Certainly the idiom ‘guilty pleasure’ captures the emotional register of responses by women in this larger group of ambivalent enjoyers of the genre. Like Tamara, respondents commonly respond with ‘I enjoy them but’ or ‘I love and hate them’. The reasons women give for enjoying the genre, such as the reassurance of ‘a happy feel-good ending’, as is articulated by Tamara above, or fantasy entertainment as is expressed by Ellie below, differ little from the smaller cluster who enjoy it without reservations.
Well I love and hate them. I love the mythology and know it’s a fantasy but just love watching the story anyway... and it is so wonderful not to see violence and I like to be taken out of the ordinary to dream possibilities and believe that you can find your prince - of course it is not real only a trip to fantasy lane.
(46-50 age group, heterosexual, manager/professional, resides in QLD, born in Australia)
While it is clear that Ellie enjoys the way the genre provides her the opportunity to dream in the same way that Caroline does in the group of unqualified enjoyers, it is more difficult to decipher the source of her feelings of hate for the genre. Following Tamara, we speculate that the clue is in the words, ‘of course it is not real’. Indeed, it is common for respondents in this group to either directly accord, or indirectly infer, the source of their mixed emotions to what they perceive as the genre’s unrealistic content, as shown in Mia’s response:
Mixed feelings - they can be quite enjoyable and funny for something light-hearted sometimes, however, some of them can be quite unrealistic and promote "happily ever after" endings which can be too predictable and leave a single girl feeling deflated and angry that this doesn't happen in the real world.
(31-35 age group, heterosexual, professional, resides at Ridgehaven SA, born in SA)
Ironically, and in contrast to the main position in the academic literature that chick lit and chick flicks mirrors everyday life, Mia is disheartened because everyday life does not mirror the genre. While Mia wants life to be more like representations in the genre, most respondents want representations to be more like life. Deirdre’s response is illustrative.
Mixed feelings. They can be entertaining and funny, but I feel they are not a realistic portrayal of real life. I don't like the portrayal of women as damsels in distress, or needing to have a man to be happy.
(18-25 age group, heterosexual, student, resides in Crawley WA, born in Esperance WA)
Her response not only highlights the link between ambivalence and the perception of a lack of reality in representations, but also the link between ambivalence and the kind of representation of women being depicted. She pinpoints one of the two main offending stereotypes – the portrayal of a woman needing to be saved by a man in order to be happy.
Certainly, respondents in this group appear to have difficulty fully enjoying the novels and films in the genre because representations pigeon-hole women in ways they find offensive, as Pauline shows:
I like them because they feel good, usually have happy endings and are fairy stories. They are an escape from daily routine and they take me back to a child's naive take on the world. I get irritated by them, on occasion, because they sometimes offer a very stereotyped view of women and of their expectations.
(51-55 age group, lesbian, professional, resides at Largs Bay SA, born in NSW)
The other main qualm respondents have with the imagery is the stereotype of the heroine whose role it is to please her man. This concern is well illustrated by Justine, although she perceives the genre to have moved on from the depiction of a man rescuing the heroine, that so irked Deirdre and others:
I have mixed feelings because I believe myself to be a feminist and so can't help but sometimes be annoyed at the stereotypes or portrayal of women at times or the message that 'you need a man' to be happy. Or similarly, women need to unlock the secrets of keeping their man happy! ... I think the chick lit/films have moved away from the man rescuing the woman ‘the damsel in distress' kind of thing - I think they are more about pulling at the desire of relationships - finding the one! I like this more as women aren't portrayed as passive, weak, in need - they are portrayed as active in their decisions, searching, etc - they know what they want! But at the same time I am uncomfortable with happiness only be[ing] equated with a man.
Whilst not necessarily articulating a feminist identity as this respondent does, other responses convey similar sentiments. Unlike the women who enjoy the genre without ambivalence, those in this cluster seem unable to turn off the inner feminist critic. Much of the ambivalence that women experience appears to derive its source from representations of a heroine hell bent on finding a man to be happy, and then trying to keep him happy, ones that seem far removed from the positive images of strong, independent women advocated by second wave feminists.
While the majority of respondents consider representation of women and their sexualities are both unrealistic and unappealing, there are a couple of brave souls who admit to identifying with aspects of them, such as Josephine:
I enjoy their light heartedness. I think there are too many 'dark' movies about human relationships. We need a break from it. I hate how women are portrayed as needing validation from men all the time. I have mixed feelings, because I understand and celebrate feminism, but part of me WANTS to be 'saved' or taken care of (helpless female role??) like in Twilight. But intellectually I can't stand films/books like that.
(18-25 age group, heterosexual, community service work/student, resides at Stonyfell SA, born in Adelaide SA)
For Josephine, then, her ambivalence arises from both identifying and dis-identifying with the genre’s portrayal of women. This analysis is consistent with McNay’s understanding that emotional experience allows for an ‘examination of the contradictory forms of identification and affective force that underlie these ambivalences’ (2004: 177). Yet few women in this study publicly identify with the representations in the genre. On the surface, this finding suggests that the genre’s representations do not accurately reflect women’s contemporary experiences. However, we put forward another idea, that is, that this lack of recognition may be more to do with finding the portrayals of women unappealing rather than necessarily lacking authenticity. Certainly, Josephine’s response above reveals just how difficult it is to identify with feminine imagery in the genre, even when it resonates in some way. However, Cherry indicates that it is possible to identify with representations that are not appealing:
Hate girls looking helpless, love the feeling of a sensitive male character, identify with characters on some level.
(36-40 age group, heterosexual, professional, resides in Cairns QLD, born in Maryborough QLD)
Certainly both Josephine and Cherry waylay the idea that disagreeable and unrealistic images are one and the same. Indeed, could the imagery in the genre draw attention to problematic aspects of social life for women, including their sexual relationships, that readers have difficulty acknowledging, or even seeing? There are some clues as to what these problematic aspects might be. For example, some women indicate that they like and even love the depiction of the men as non-violent, caring and sensitive. We suggest that while most of the women reject the feminine stereotypes in line with a feminist reading, some women also hint at dissatisfaction with aspects of their intimate relationships that are redressed, if only at the level of fantasy, by chick lit and chick films. We finish this discussion of women’s ambivalent emotional responses, however, by referring to one by Alice, who strongly criticises the way women are depicted. Her response is unique in that she no longer enjoys the genre. Yet her impatience may be telling in pointing to what some readers have been trying to articulate. Her excerpt speaks of wanting the genre to be something beyond what it provides; it speaks of the genre being out of kilter with the emotional climate of the times:
I used to read/watch chick lit and adaptations as 'light' entertainment and have actually written in defense of chick lit but I've grown impatient with the genre, as it continues to represent women and romance in unrealistic and offensive ways. We are not as simple-minded or single-minded (on marriage) as these books and films portray us. The texts only seem to re-hash the Cinderella storyline.
(26-30 age group, student, heterosexual, resides at West Lakes SA, born in Adelaide SA)
Alice captures, to borrow the words of Williams (1977: 132), a ‘structure of feeling’ by respondents whose emotional experiences of the genre are mixed. This ambivalent ‘structure of feeling’ expresses readers’ distress with certain portrayals of women and implies a yearning by a number of them for something different from the genre’s conventional feminine sexual stereotypes, as well as the desire expressed by some for more emotionally satisfying relationships beyond the Cinderella script.
Our intention in this paper has been to gain a more nuanced understanding of the apparent ongoing appeal of chick lit and chick flicks by delving into the affective space of women‘s experiences of them. At face value, our study appears to contradict the main contention in the chick lit and chick flick scholarship that the genre’s appeal is in its capacity, as tongue-in-cheek comedy entertainment, to reflect back everyday life for women in all its messy detail. Clearly, the women in this study enjoy the genre primarily as entertainment value to escape everyday life or to fantasise about a different life. By focusing on the emotional expression in women’s responses, our study has been able to also show that for the majority of respondents the reading experience is an ambivalent one. Yet, the contention by scholars that readers identify with characteristics of the flawed protagonist and the compromising situations she encounters might still have weight if we look at the depth and complexity of the feelings in women’s responses. While still enjoying the books or films as escapist entertainment, respondents commonly express simultaneous negative feelings, such as guilt, embarrassment, anger, irritation, impatience, deflation, and abhorrence at certain representations, particularly those that depict women as needing a man to be happy or needing to keep him happy. We suggest this ‘cringe’ factor points to a deep seated fear by respondents at appearing foolish for enjoying a genre that portrays women in ways they find disagreeable, and that often reflect unequal gendered relations. This ambivalence is likely to be felt keenly by women who identify as feminists or hold feminist ideas, as many in the sample do, and who are unable to turn off their inner critical feminist voice. Moreover, we surmise that not only are some women distancing themselves emotionally from representations because they find them unattractive on feminist grounds, but because they resonate in certain ways.We suggest that for some women, chick lit and chick flicks throw into relief aspects of their lives that might be difficult for them to acknowledge. More specifically, we suggest that some women’s positive emotional responses to the portrayal of men as sensitive and caring may expose ongoing gendered inequities in relation to emotional caretaking in heterosexual relationships. These findings are in keeping with Whelehan’s (2000) position that the lure of the genre is in the tension between feminist and feminine aspirations.
We conclude that the genre’s appeal for women living in Australia at the end of the first decade of the new millennium is more complex than the straightforward ‘mirror’ account that is mainly privileged in the chick lit and chick flick literature. Regardless of whether representations are unrealistic as most respondents claim, or more authentic than they recognise, what is more patent is anambivalent structure of feeling towards the genre. This finding leads us to speculate that the genre may be out of step with the mood of the times or at least with women’s desires and daydreams for less conventional feminine representations. At the same time, though, we suggest that the genre also manages to tap into a level of dissatisfaction with intimate relationships amongst some women, offering a level of emotional redress, if only at the level of fantasy.
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