Silly Novels about Silly Women; or, Reflections on Jane Austen, Sex and the City, and Winning at Scrabble (originally posted January 20, 2008)
Well you see, it was a busy week, and sometimes it's nice to have something light to pick up and read over breakfast or whatever....but Confessions of a Shopaholic sure is lame. In a general way, I don't have much to add to what I said before about "chick lit." I'm glad I got this book from the library and didn't pay a cent for it, because I want to get rid of it as soon as possible. I don't necessarily object to a little mindless diversion. But--what really irked me with this one was actually the same thing that irks me about Bridget Jones's Diary, although that novel is much more clever and entertaining: what's supposed to be the charm of foolish, incompetent women? Is it really so hard to imagine smart, committed, capable women in romantic contexts?
The answer of course is no, because the supposed "mother of chick lit," Jane Austen, does precisely that. Elizabeth Bennett does not win Mr. Darcy's heart by being cute but trivial; she earns his respect and charms his socks off. Anne Elliot doesn't deserve happiness because she happens into an insight or two after a whole book of being silly and irresponsible: we know all along that Wentworth will be the foolish one if he falls for anyone without her integrity and capacity for intelligent action. None of Austen's protagonists discovers, conveniently, that having no real interests beyond clothes, shopping, and sex, no professional competence, no ideas of any substance, is actually the way to true love. "Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story," Anne Elliot famously protests when confronted with literary ' evidence' of women's character. "Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands." Yet with the pen in their hands, some women peddle this kind of "sell-yourself-short" fantasy to women--and it sells!
Is the appeal of this variety of "chick lit" that it reassures women that not only do they not have to be smart and successful to be attractive but that their failures (blue soup!) will make them more appealing to smart and successful men? Or is it just easier to put that kind of story together than to confront, as Austen does, just what kind of challenge a strong woman poses to conventional ideas of romance, femininity, and narrative? (There's a kind of equivalent for men in Forrest Gump, I think: better to be mentally deficient but good-hearted, and somehow, by accident, you will win every race.) Once upon a time my (very shrewd and professionally successful) grandmother cautioned me not to beat my then-boyfriend at Scrabble. The message was that brainy women are off-putting, that competence is incompatible with charm. (This theory was wholly undermined by her own life, though she persisted in calling herself "Whistler's mother," a label nobody who knew her could ever accept.) Though she was a huge fan of her granddaughters' successes, I think she was not altogether wrong--not in principle, but in practice. Sex and the City, which looks in many ways like it belongs in the "chick lit" genre, is very smart sometimes about the difficulties independent, successful women face in negotiating romantic norms and expectations (remember the episode in which Carrie buys Berger a Prada shirt? or the one in which Miranda wants to take Steve to an office party?). Sex and the City presents fantasies of other kinds, to be sure, but overall I think it refuses to make its women silly and often this is precisely where their romantic problems begin. In this respect anyway, perhaps the series is more in Austen's tradition than I would have thought, and certainly more so than even Bridget Jones. In any case, I say go on and win at Scrabble if you can! Your self-respect depends on it.