Printer Friendly

Chick lit in the undergraduate classroom.

"Readers call a book good when they find it useful," asserts Charlotte Templin in her study of literary pedagogy and the canon, "The Male-Dominated Curriculum in English: How Did We Get Here and Where are We Going?" She continues, explaining the politics behind such value judgments, "Instead of asking 'How good is it?' we must ask 'Good for what?' or 'Good for whom?' Judgments about quality are not the objective property of texts, but are contingent: they are the political judgments of individuals and, as such, a function of their tastes, interests, and beliefs." (1) The genre known as "chick lit," a category of contemporary women's fiction that emerged in the 1990s with works including Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary, has been plagued by such judgments and has sparked much debate in the popular press. This debate tends to take issue with two aspects of the genre, its status as literature and its relationship to feminism, and the recent infiltration of the academy by chick lit has further intensified these concerns. Nonetheless, the genre has begun to make inroads with the publication of a handful of critical articles, Caroline Smith's Cosmopolitan Culture and Consumerism in Contemporary Women's Popular Fiction (2007), and Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young's critical anthology Chick Lit: The New Woman's Fiction (2006). (2) The very questions concerning literature and feminism that make chick lit problematic for scholars and cultural critics, however, make the genre quite suitable for the undergraduate classroom, particularly for those instructors committed to feminist pedagogy both within and beyond women's studies classes. Indeed, as Brenda Bethman notes in "Chick Lit mi," where she lists a handful of faculty who use chick lit in their classrooms, along with their course titles, "Slowly, however, the study of chick lit is gaining popularity among Women's Studies scholars." (3) The inherently interdisciplinary nature of the chick-lit genre and its connection to critical discussions about literature and feminism provide a variety of creative and interactive teaching opportunities, while also creating the sense of "relevance" that bell hooks identifies as essential to the feminist classroom when she asserts that teachers need to be willing "to acknowledge a connection between ideas learned in university settings and those learned in life practices." (4)

bell hooks articulates her theory of feminist pedagogy in Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom and acknowledges the difficulty of reaching students in a postfeminist world: "Right now teachers and students face new challenges in the feminist classroom. Our students are no longer necessarily already committed to or interested in feminist politics." (5) hooks and many other theorists also emphasize the need for feminist classrooms in which student perspectives are validated, multiple approaches are employed, and patriarchal value systems are deconstructed. (6) Ultimately, these writers argue, any classroom can be a feminist classroom. Chick lit, a genre characterized by "resiliency and adaptability," can certainly facilitate the creation of dynamic and interdisciplinary feminist spaces within an undergraduate curriculum. (7) With its primarily white, middle-class, heterosexual heroines, much chick lit, including the texts discussed here, Bridget Jones's Diary and Confessions of a Shopaholic, seems to jar with feminist pedagogy's commitment, as articulated by hooks, to "cultural diversity, a rethinking of ways of knowing, a deconstruction of old epistemologies, and the concomitant demand that there be a transformation in our classrooms." (8) In addition, as Ferriss and Young point out in the Chronicle of Higher Education, chick lit embodies generational conflicts among women:
  For some of us who identify ourselves as feminist professors, the
  concerns of young women represent a betrayal--not only of our academic
  work, but of our life's work. Why are they worrying about their
  appearance more than their education? Dressing for sex, not success?
  Understandably embittered at the rejection of their most cherished
  ideals, many professors prefer to ignore or dismiss students'
  concerns--and certainly prefer not to teach the literature they
  believe. (9)

However, for Brenda Bethman chick lit provides an opportunity to bridge that gender gap: "While we may not agree on what Bridget Jones means for contemporary womanhood, she has proven to be an excellent place to start talking about that meaning?" (10) Chick-lit texts may be the subject of debate, yet unpacking these debates in the classroom can empower students to both engage with and expand the critical discussions surrounding the novels and reach beyond the individual texts to broader social and cultural concerns.


The term chick lit first appeared as an ironic distinction in the title of the 1995 collection Chick-Lit: Postfeminist Fiction (edited by Chris Mazza and Jeffrey DeShell) and was subsequently co-opted by the media to characterize nov-els with young twenty-and thirty-something female protagonists, living in trendy urban settings and trying to juggle professional and personal responsibilities, while scouring the city for Mr. Right and wearing four-inch Manolo Blahnik heels. (11) Like contemporary romance novels the chick-lit novel is unapologetically formulaic and jubilantly marketable. This marketability is, in part, responsible for the debates over the genre. As Ferriss and Young explain in the introduction to their anthology, "The discourse surrounding the genre has been polarized between its outright dismissal as trivial fiction and unexamined embrace by fans who claim that it reflects the realities of life for contemporary single women." (12) Similarly, Caroline Smith argues that the genre "becomes an easy target for the critics' derision, relegated to both subordinate spaces--the popular and the female." (13)

At the heart of the debate over chick lit is its dubious status as feminist and as literature. Concerning the genre's place, or lack thereof, in contemporary feminist culture, Ferriss and Young ask, "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?" (14) In addition, does chick lit's catalog of primarily white, middle-class, heterosexual protagonists compromise its claim to "authentically" represent women's voices and women's experiences? A 1998 New York Times review of Bridget Jones's Diary offers an emphatic perspective on the novel's depiction of feminism. Taking the form of a letter to Bridget Jones from American sitcom heroine Ally Mc-Beal, the review emphasizes their similarities, with Ally telling Bridget, "It's like really weird. It's ... it's like we're plugged into the same cosmic Zeitgeist. I mean here we are, these two virtual twins who like to wear short skirts: two babes, if I say so myself, with good legs, a good sense of humor and bad boyfriends." (15) Regarding their shared attitude toward feminism, Ally writes, "We seem to have unwittingly become targets of the same critics, all these mean, awful, nasty naysayers who complain that we're some kind of pre-feminist throwbacks--Stone Age women who just want to be hauled off to a nice warm cave by some cute, dishy guy." (16) In contrast, reporting on an interview with chick-lit author Marion Keyes (Sushi for Beginners, Watermelon, Rachel's Holiday), Diane de la Paz describes how both reading and writing chick lit can provide a much-needed support system for women: "a chick-lit novel, then, is like having a bunch of close friends around the reader, providing good company and perhaps even some fresh ideas." (17)

Critics and writers have also debated chick lit's status as "literature." Among its supporters chick lit can include novelists Jeanette Winterson and Pat Barker, while the genre has been condemned as "froth" by Beryl Bainbridge and Doris Lessing. (18) The Guardian reports that Lessing termed the novels "instantly forgettable," while Bainbridge asserted that "as people spend so little time reading it is a pity they perhaps can't read something a bit deeper, a bit more profound, something with a bit of bite to it." (19) In contrast other critics see chick lit as the inheritor of a long tradition of women's writing. (20) Alison Case aligns Bridget Jones's Diary with eighteenth-and nineteenth-century examples of "feminine narration" and argues that Bridget's authenticity stems, in part, from her participation in a tradition of feminine narrators who also exhibit "the lack of narrative and material agency we have come to expect from fictional women." (21) And Kelly A. Marsh puts Bridget Jones's Diary in dialogue with contemporary British fiction by A. S. Byatt and Anita Brookner to illustrate the novel's engagement with "Blair-era British communitarianism." (22)

While scholars and cultural critics must negotiate these debates and often seem pressured in their own writings to choose a side, teachers can employ these debates to promote feminist pedagogy and engage their students. With the proliferation of chick lit (the site lists an average of eighteen new books per month) and the emergence of subgenres of chick lit, including Christian chick lit, hen lit (aimed at women over forty), chick lit jr. (aimed at teens and tweens), mystery/paranormal chick lit, Latina chick lit, and African American chick lit, it can be difficult to generalize about the genre and its suitability for the classroom. Nonetheless, the questions of the novels' feminist consciousness and status as literature apply to most examples of the genre and offer entry points for using these texts in the classroom. Drawing on teaching experiences with Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary (1996) and Sophie Kinsella's Confessions of a Shopaholic (2001), I would like to consider how feminist pedagogy can transform the debates over the nature of the chick-lit genre into classroom practices that ask students to become critically engaged with contemporary culture, provide research opportunities, and promote interdisciplinary teaching, while at the same time encouraging students to investigate the limited scope of much chick lit and to question the genre's representation of feminine experience.


With the wide variety of feminist novels available to contemporary readers, Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary may not seem the most obvious choice for inclusion in a women's studies course or a women writers course, yet I frequently teach it in both contexts. Indeed, the relationship between the novel and contemporary feminism has been seen as vexed at best. Bridget spends much of the novel in pursuit of a boyfriend and declares, "there's nothing so unattractive to a man as strident feminism," yet she also works toward self-reliance and personal and professional successes. (23) Torn between celebrating her "Singleton" status and desperately wanting to be part of a couple, Bridget reflects the situation of many contemporary college students who believe the media critique of feminism yet are content to reap its benefits. As Jessica Valenti writes in Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman's Guide to Why Feminism Matters, "Most young women are feminists, but we're too afraid to say--it or even to recognize it," and she proceeds to break down familiar stereotypes on her way to convincing readers: "You're a hardcore feminist. I swear." (24)

Fielding's text contains numerous sound bites that both support and condemn feminism--a situation that can frustrate students who may be accustomed to seeing feminism as a monolithic entity, rather than as a constantly evolving, many-shaded movement. In "Hyper-feminisms: Poststructuralist Theories, Popular Culture, and Pedagogy" Lisa S. Starks explains that "an awareness of the multiplicity of feminist perspectives escapes the typical college student" and can stand as a barrier to feminist pedagogy. (25) Having students work with reviews of the novel that range from celebrations to satires to outright condemnations can begin to expose them to this multiplicity. In studying the reviews, students encounter Decca Aitkenhead's characterization of Bridget Jones's self-deprecation--"because this pre-feminist angst is delivered in ballsy prose, it gets passed off as post-feminist wit"--and author Helen Fielding's dismissive claim "Sometimes I have had people getting their knickers in a twist about Bridget Jones being a disgrace to feminism. ... But it is good to be able to represent women as they actually are in the age in which you are living." (26) Using these materials as starting points, students come to separate the character of Bridget from the novel as a whole, realizing that Bridget's own (however limited) definition of feminism differs from the feminist consciousness of Fielding's novel and that of other contemporary critics. Thus, they can begin to engage with the dialogue between the novel and contemporary feminism. More important, however, approaching the text through critical responses also establishes a connection between the discussion in the classroom and the discussion in the popular press, validating both the students' responses to the novel and their struggles with feminism in general by engaging with a context beyond the classroom.

Studying the novel's treatment of feminism can also be facilitated by other course materials. In my Introduction to Women's Studies course I teach Bridget Jones's Diary at the end of the semester because it brings together many of the issues we have discussed. For example, the distinction between second-and third-wave feminism, introduced in class through writings by Betty Friedan, Amy Richards and Jennifer Baumgardner, and Rebecca Walker, can be difficult to grasp for students whose sense of history is not particularly comprehensive. However, the relationship between Bridget and her mother and each woman's engagement with the gender roles promoted by her generation helps to snap things into focus. Bridget is terrorized by friends of her parents who see her as the typical career girl, freed by feminism to embrace an independent single life at the expense of "more important things," such as a family and children. Una Alconbury repeatedly clacks: "You career girls! I don't know! Can't put it off forever, you know. Tick-tock-tick-tock." (27) However, the students can come to understand that, for Bridget, gender identity is more complex than just choosing between single life and a family; it also encompasses issues of sexuality, professionalism, cultural pressures, and individual desires--points of concern for many women who are struggling to locate themselves within third-wave feminism. Bridget's mother is also discovering her own feminist consciousness, but in a completely different way. Her articulation of the desire to have a life beyond home and family could have been lifted from Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique:
  It's merely a question of realizing, when your father retired, that I
  had spent thirty-five years without a break running his home and
  bringing up his children. ... As far as he was concerned his
  lifetime's work was over and mine was still carrying on, which is
  exactly how I used to feel when you were little and it got to the
  weekends. You only get one life. I've just made a decision things a
  bit and spend what's left of mine looking after me for a change. (28)

Like mother, like daughter. Pam Jones's engagement with feminism is also problematic in that it is primarily characterized by her newfound ability to wield sexual power over a string of men. Although both Bridget and her mother are in seemingly stable relationships at the end of the novel, the future of those relationships remains unclear.

Offering a third-wave perspective in the novel is Bridget's friend Sharon (Shazzer), who unapologetically champions female independence and criticizes men for exploiting feminine insecurities: "We women are only vulnerable because we are a pioneer generation daring to refuse to compromise in love and relying on our own economic power. In twenty years' time men won't even dare start with fuckwittage because we will just laugh in their faces." (29) Bridget is unwilling to fully accept Sharon's point of view, which she characterizes as "strident," yet at the same time she finds it liberating, and she moves between these two positions over the course of the novel. This sense of push-and-pull certainly characterizes many contemporary college students' relationship to third-wave feminism--they acknowledge its benefits yet are also frustrated by its broad scope and apparent "distance" from their own lives. In Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future (2000) Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards offer a laundry list of the concerns of third-wave feminism, beginning, "Third Wave's goals are derived from analyzing how every issue affects this generation of young women. ... Prominent Third Wave issues include equal access to the Internet and technology, HIV/AIDS awareness, child sexual abuse, self-mutilation, globalization, eating disorders and body imager and the list goes on. (30) Because students cannot identify a single issue--suffrage, abortion rights, and so on--that characterizes third-wave feminism, they sometimes question its relevance. However, when I present them with Baumgardner and Richards's list and ask if they are concerned about those issues, an overwhelming majority answer "yes." Putting Bridget Jones's Diary in the context of course readings on the history of feminism, then, both illuminates the novel and provides students with additional perspectives on second-and third-wave feminism. We discuss the different ways that Bridget, her mother, and Sharon negotiate the power and independence that feminism has made available to them, which helps students to understand the distinct struggles that characterize second-and third-wave feminism as well as to see the tensions among contemporary cultural norms, personal desires, and feminist ideals, none of which are firmly resolved at the end of the novel.

The question of the novel's engagement with feminism also provides opportunities for interdisciplinary work that encourages the students to see how Bridget Jones's Diary critiques contemporary women's culture. Main-stream messages about femininity appear throughout the novel and are particularly notable in the relationship between Bridget and the magazines and self-help books that comprise most of her reading material. Over the course of the novel Bridget becomes involved with a variety of philosophies and lifestyles, from feng shui to inner poise, all designed to improve her life and make her a "better" and "more desirable" person. Most of these improvement plans scarcely last as long as the month-long segments into which the book is divided; nonetheless, the theme of self-improvement and self-help runs throughout the novel, calling attention to the intense pressure on young women to fit a particular norm. Moreover, as Caroline Smith illustrates in her study of reader responses to chick lit, many chick-lit novels themselves take on the status of "fictional self-help book[s]." (31) In discussing Laura Zig-man's chick-lit novel Animal Husbandry, Smith explains, "Readers seem to find comfort in this book in a way similar to that of self-help readers who often turn to self-help books, searching for answers, explanations, common experiences, and most of all advice"--a response that is certainly shared by my students, many of whom can identify with the novels' protagonists. (32) Bridget herself articulates the perspective of self-help culture quite clearly as she undergoes laborious preparations for a date with Daniel Cleaver: "Wise people will say Daniel should like me just as I am, but I am a child of Cosmopolitan culture, have been traumatized by supermodels and too many quizzes and know that neither my personality nor my body is up to it if left to its own devices." (33) This message is repeated throughout the book, as Bridget consistently chooses unattainable goals and then berates herself when she cannot attain them. Nonetheless, Bridget's predicament provides a wonderful point of entry into a discussion of contemporary self-help culture, magazines, and advertising and the way in which they shape gender ideals.

In class students look at self-help books, magazines, and advertisements and decode the gendered messages therein. (34) Students locate articles and advertisements that reflect the cultural ethos depicted in the novel and consider how these materials might have influenced a character like Bridget. Most students would like to think that they are savvy and critical readers of such texts and frequently resist giving them serious consideration, claiming "they're just ads" or "everyone knows those books are stupid." However, looking specifically at the materials (magazines, books) and the results (Bridget's reaction) removes the personal element, and students can then acknowledge, safely, that these materials have negative, some would say traumatic, effects on their readers because of the ways in which they infiltrate an individual's consciousness and become part of her everyday discourse--a point that is exemplified quite clearly by the way that Bridget casually drops such references into conversation and diary entries:
  Eventually the three of us worked out a strategy for Jude. She must
  stop beating herself over the head with Women Who Love Too Much and
  instead think more toward Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus,
  which will help her to see Richard's behavior less as a sign that she
  is co-dependent and loving too much and more in the light of him being
  like a Martian rubber band which needs to stretch away in order to
  come back. (35)

Of course, the students recognize the irony of a situation in which Bridget can select from her extensive shelf of self-help books and magazines to find the appropriate "advice" that matches what she wants to hear at any given moment.

Bridget uses a similar buffet-style approach to dieting, recording her food intake and making adjustments for various diet fads: "Breakfast: hot-cross bun (Scarsdale Diet--slight variation on specified piece of whole-wheat toast). ... Snack: two bananas, two pears (switched to F-plan as starving and cannot face Scarsdale carrot snacks). Carton orange juice (Anti-Cellulite Raw-Food Diet)." (36) The other question that such an approach raises for students is the nature of the "ideal" represented in the books and magazines that Bridget reads. Many students immediately recognize the disjunction between the tall, thin, light-skinned ideal of beauty and the reality that, for most people, such an ideal cannot be achieved through reading a magazine or self-help book. However, as we discuss the other assumptions that such books and magazines rely upon--namely, that the reader is in search of a heterosexual relationship and that she has the disposable income to purchase these materials to begin with--students begin to see that the socialization accomplished by self-help culture enforces heterosexism and classism as well as standards of beauty that are both unrealistic and racist. The incorporation of these books and magazines into the classroom positions Bridget Jones's Diary as an interdisciplinary reflection of contemporary culture; thus, class sessions can become interdisciplinary as well, bringing a variety of perspectives and media to bear on the novel.

One such medium is the 2001 film adaptation of Bridget Jones's Diary. When we begin discussing the text, I often find that the majority of my students have already seen the film but have not read the novel. There are many aspects of the novel and questions of adaptation that could be fruitfully addressed in relationship to these texts, such as the difficulty of translating Bridget's authorial voice to an on-screen presence. However, in the context of a women's studies or women writers class that is trying to locate and work with the novel's feminist consciousness, we consider the way in which the novel's engagement with feminism is altered for a mainstream film audience. Most students recognize that the film tones down the feminism of the novel and uses it as a source of humor. Although Bridget narrates the film, the edginess and satirical tone of this perspective, which is wielded against both society and Bridget herself, is softened. Likewise, many key scenes are changed; for example, Bridget's initial refusal to sleep with Daniel Cleaver, earning her the title "Mrs. Iron Knickers," is replaced by a first date in which they do wind up in bed together. (37) In addition, many students note, the film emphasizes moments when Bridget is bumbling and idiotic but downplays the cultural forces that have pushed her into many of those situations.

The film also makes visible the limited and homogenous world of the novel, something that many students overlook when reading. Bridget is meant to stand out from her friends and rivals as "fat" and "unattractive," yet she still fits into a set of norms based on race, class, and sexuality. Although the novel demonstrates how Bridget's body image is a result of her own skewed perception, the film writes these internal anxieties onto her physical body and removes much of Fielding's commentary about the social and cultural forces that have contributed to Bridget's insecurities. The film also alters what little diversity exists in the novel with the transformation of Bridget's gay friend Tom into a 1980s pop star and one-hit wonder obsessed with his lingering popularity. The novelistic treatment of Tom is humorous but positive, while in the film that humor is used to render him as a caricature and stereotype. Similarly, Bridget's friend Sharon, who is the mouthpiece for third-wave feminism and women's independence throughout much of the novel, also becomes a caricature--a brash and brassy woman who "likes to say fuck. A lot." At the end of the film, following the scene in which Mark Darcy reads part of Bridget's diary (added for the film), Bridget declares, "It's only a diary. Everyone knows diaries are full of crap." Within the context of a women's studies or women's writing course, however, students realize that dairies, and other forms of articulating women's experience, are certainly not "crap" but instead offer important perspectives on feminism and contemporary culture. In both courses I aim to introduce students to a multiplicity of feminisms and help them to draw connections between the course materials and the world in which they live, and teaching Bridget Jones's Diary provides a variety of opportunities for students to engage with these ideas.


Sophie Kinsella's Confessions of a Shopaholic, like Bridget Jones's Diary, is also suited to the feminist classroom, and I have taught the novel in a course on women writers centered on a theme of consumerism, as well as in a course on research writing that focused on "Fads and Fashions" and included a unit on advertising and extensive use of Malcolm Gladwell's 2000 bestseller The Tipping Point. Within this latter context the novel provided a way to integrate fiction and composition within a feminist classroom where feminism and women's studies were not among the objectives included in the course catalog.

An initial skim through Confessions of a Shopaholic immediately reveals that it is ripe with the potential for research, particularly when the audience is middle-and working-class students, many of whom have not traveled beyond the region in which they live. The implications of having a flat in "trendy Fulham" versus Reigate, the cachet of the Financial Times, and the difference between Marks and Spencer and Harrods are lost on most students. The context of the book, while helpful, can be misleading; indeed, it prompted one of my students to draw a parallel between Harrods and Wal-Mart (based on the idea that one can purchase a wide variety of goods there, in which case he was correct). However, it is in these subtle differences and shadings of quality and prestige that much of the novel's cultural critique can be found. Thus, one way of approaching the novel can involve asking students to undertake some basic research on a topic of their choice and then to share that information with the class. This assignment can also be combined with teaching research skills, as many of the shops, television programs, magazines, and so on found in the novel are mentioned in periodicals such as the London Times and the Guardian, which are searchable through online databases. Students can then use these periodicals (as opposed to relying solely on Wikipedia or other less reliable sources) to fill in some of the contextual background for the novel. This exercise is interdisciplinary, bringing together a variety of print and online media; takes the students outside of the classroom into the world of shops and shopping that provides the cultural context for the novel; and offers an opportunity to teach presentation and oral communication skills. (38)

Having accumulated the necessary contexts, students can then begin to delve into the ways in which the novel performs a feminist cultural critique. They observe the incongruities between protagonist Becky Bloomwood's spending habits and credit card debt and the various cultural forces--most of which are directed at women--that perpetuate this cycle. For example, Becky is lured into buying three pots of moisturizer at the drugstore Boots because she can get double advantage points. Becky then explains the philosophy behind her shopping:
  I love advantage points. Aren't they a wonderful invention? If you
  spend enough, you can get really good prizes, like a beauty day at a
  hotel. Last Christmas I was really canny--I let my points build up
  until I'd accumulated enough to buy my granny's Christmas present.
  What happened in fact was, I'd already built up 1,653 points--and I
  needed 1,800 to buy her a heated roller set. So I bought myself a
  great big bottle of Samsara perfume, and that gave me 150 extra points
  on my card--and then I got the heated roller set absolutely free! The
  only thing is, I don't much like Samsara perfume--but I didn't realize
  that I got home. Still, never mind. (39)

Here, Becky is presented as the ideal consumer. She is lured by various marketing strategies, despite the fact that she obviously does not need, or even want, what she is buying, which, Caroline Smith notes, invites readers to consider "what would happen if a woman were to blindly follow the consumer guidelines advocated by women's magazines." (40) Although Becky's closing comment may sound self-aware, it is quickly dismissed, and later that same day she buys more moisturizer so that she can get a free Clarins beauty bag. Again, she is disappointed with the purchase but dismisses her concerns: "And there, sure enough, is my free lipstick! It's a kind of browny-red color. A bit weird, actually. But if I mix it up a bit with some of my others and add a bit of lip gloss, it'll look really good." (41) These back-to-back shopping experiences illustrate how Kinsella calls attention to the ways in which "the culture of conspicuous consumption creates an endless cycle to replicate those brief moments of shopping-induced euphoria." (42) Similar shopping situations occur throughout the novel, and students perform a close reading of these scenes to consider the embedded cultural critique and examine how Kinsella uses Becky's situation to comment on issues of materialism, branding, and the contemporary culture of debt.

By looking at Becky's shopping scenes, we can also analyze how her shopping is specifically gendered. Midway through the novel Becky is surprised to discover the rather gender-neutral world of luggage and only does so at the insistence of her love interest, Luke Brandon: "How can I have overlooked luggage for so long? How can I have just blithely led my life ignoring an entire retail sector?" (43) Indeed, the treatment of shopping and fashion within the novel taps into a problematic issue for feminists, as Ferriss and Young explain: "Fashion has been dismissed by feminists as frivolous, as inculcating women with debilitating femininity and making them the unwitting dupes of capitalism. But feminist condemnations have coexisted with claims that fashion provides women with a means of expressing identity." (44) Confessions walks the line between portraying fashion and shopping as debilitating and as empowering--Becky accumulates substantial debt, yet once she learns to manage her expertise in shopping and consumer culture, she can use that expertise to secure a job that is both personally and financially fulfilling. Having laid the research and analytical groundwork, then, students can bring their own findings to bear on the novel, writing a critical paper in which they use their research to illustrate the ways in which the novel performs a cultural critique. Ultimately, the question of the novel's feminism--approached through the double-edged sword of Becky's engagement with fashion and shopping--can be a useful source for critical research and writing activities that have students work with popular and material culture and also encourage them to critique the depiction of that culture within the novel.

While the shopping habits of Becky Bloomwood may be all too familiar for many students, this is by no means a universal perspective but, instead, is predicated on certain class privileges. This situation is made clear from the very start of the novel, which opens with a letter to Becky from Endwich Bank, declaring, "Congratulations! As a recent graduate of Bristol University you are undoubtedly proud of your performance. ... We are therefore offering you, Ms. Bloomwood--as a graduate a free extended overdraft facility of [pounds sterling]2,000," and signed by the "Graduate Marketing Manager." (45) Students see how this letter presupposes a link between access to money and credit and education--one that is apparently so strong that it merits an entire department of "Graduate Marketing" at. Endwich Bank. Because Becky has graduated from college, she is now "worthy" of credit. Of course, as the two letters that immediately follow illustrate, having graduated from college does not ensure that Becky is prepared to handle her finances; she has overdrawn her account and is making excuses to her bank manager in a sad attempt to avoid facing the situation. As the novel progresses, some students become increasingly irate that Becky does not face any serious consequences for her actions but instead is able to fix her dilemmas by trading on class privilege. She can run off to her is able to fix her dilemmas by trading on class privilege. She can run off to her parents' comfortable middle-class home to escape the pressures of her growing debt; then, by attracting a wealthy and powerful man like Luke Brandon, she can further indulge her own desires and escape the realities of financial responsibility. Thus, although the students' research and writing projects provide a context for the novel, they are also useful for highlighting the limits of the world Kinsella depicts. Everything in the novel is pointed at upward mobility, yet that mobility takes off from a solid middle point Becky does not move from shopping at discount or usedclothing stores (in the inexpensive rather than vintage sense) to Harrods; instead, she frequents midlevel shops, such as Octagon and Marks and Spencer. Kinsella situates Becky white, middle class, well employed, and college educated as the least fortunate person in the novel, and the ridiculousness of this situation becomes clear once students begin to explore the world beyond Benetton and the Ritz. In addition to providing the students with a chance to employ basic research skills and see how Kinsella uses consumer culture to perform a cultural critique, then, their research projects also highlight the limits of the novel and prompt them to perform a cultural critique of their own.


To return to Charlotte Templin's claim with which I opened, we need to re-think the implicit validation that occurs when a text appears on a college-level syllabus and move from arbitrary value judgments about whether or not a text is "good" to more culturally relevant considerations of its usefulness. Judged by the criteria of "usefulness," many chick-lit novels are thoroughly literary and relevant for a range of courses due to their engagement with the cultural moment of their production, incorporation of other media, and critique of social forces that are particularly relevant for twenty-first-century college students.

As literature chick-lit novels also lend themselves to feminist pedagogy, reflecting a feminist consciousness--if not necessarily a feminist agenda--in their pages. One of the most frequent sources for both criticism and praise of chick-lit novels, A. Rochelle Mabry notes, is their attempt to "present themselves as authentic stories of women's lives and feelings." (46) Fiction can accomplish this in ways that other course texts, including essays on third-wave feminism and nonfiction works on social epidemics, cannot. Reading these novels in class validates the students' (especially the women's) individual experiences; signals that the classroom is a place in which those experiences will be respected; and helps to create a space where, to follow bell hooks, "experience is valued, not negated or deemed meaningless." (47) Of course, at the same time for some students chick lit does lend itself to overidentification, and they want to talk only about their "Becky Bloomwood moments" or "Bridget Jones experiences," while other students, because of class, race, or personal values, feel quite distanced from the texts. Taking traditional literary-studies approaches to the novels can help address these issues. For example, both novels are told from a first-person perspective, yet there is still an important distinction between the character and the author. Encouraging students to consider how the character is constructed and to see the cultural forces that determine her actions helps to remove the overly personal responses, while still retaining the value of individual experience.

Chick-lit novels can also be studied within the context of women's writing and related debates about the canon and the history of the novel. Indeed, the controversy over the status of chick lit as literature can even be seen to marginalize these texts in the same way that the work of many other women writers has been traditionally marginalized by the academy. As Juliette Wells explains, "Because chick lit's writers are exclusively women and its readers overwhelmingly so, perceptions of the genre are affected by entrenched views that women's writing is inferior to men's and that women readers prefer lightweight novels to literary ones." (48) The first-person confessional style of Shopaholic and the diary form of Bridget Jones are both markedly "feminine" ways of writing, and discussions of form and the distinction between public published writing and private personal writing (such as confessions and diaries) can be used to introduce the concept of "separate spheres" gender ideology and to locate its legacy in contemporary culture. Moreover, as novels these texts also participate in a female literary tradition, which is perhaps most notable in Fielding's homage to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (1813). This connection is apparent in the novel as well as the film, which casts Colin Firth--who plays Mr. Darcy in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice--as Fielding's Mark Darcy in a maneuver designed to resonate with fans of Austen. In addition, Austen was a staunch supporter of women's writing, particularly novels, and offers a defense of the genre in Northanger Abbey (1818), where she identifies the novel as a "work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language." (49) Excerpts from Virginia Woolf's A Room of Ones Own (1929), in which Woolf declares that the novel is a feminine form--"The novel alone was young enough to be soft in her hands--another reason, perhaps, why she wrote novels"--can also provide useful context for understanding literary history and locating Fielding and Kinsella within a continuum of women's writing. (50) Indeed, Woolf herself would probably approve of such inclusion, as she extends her discussion of genre to include the material content of women's novels in a prescient defense of chick lit: "Speaking crudely, football and sport are 'important'; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes 'trivial.' And these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction." (51)

According to Shari Benstock, "chick lit engages with complex and significant issues regarding women's fiction and lives--past, present, and future. Its undeniable popularity within the past decade suggests ongoing concerns with sexuality and femininity, genre and gender." (52) As a subgenre of the novel, chick lit is beginning to make its way into the academy. Its adaptability to a multitude of classroom agendas and its inherently interdisciplinary nature make it an apt candidate for inclusion in a variety of courses. In her discussion of teaching feminism through biography studies, Brenda Gross observes, "The feminist consciousness of most students is 'raised' to the point where they can identify blatant sexism and will protest when their curriculum ignores women. Alerting them to more subtle forms of bias, however, is a slightly different, more complicated task." (53) If one of the goals of a feminist classroom is to raise the consciousness of the students, then chick lit, with its familiar settings and situations, can play an important role in helping students realize the multifaceted presence of gender politics in the world around them.


(1.) Charlotte Templin, "The Male-Dominated Curriculum in English: How Did We Get Here and Where are We Going?" in Gender and Academe, ed. Sara Munson Deats and Lagretta Tallent Lenker (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1994), 47.

(2.) See also Alison Case, "Authenticity, Convention, and Bridget Jones's Diary," Narrative 9, no. 2 (2001): 176-81; Kelly A. Marsh, "Contextualizing Bridget Jones," College Literature 31, no. 1 (2004) 52-72; Caroline J. Smith, "Living the Life of a Domestic God-dess: Chick Lit's Response to Domestic-Advice Manuals," Women's Studies 34, no. 8 (2005): 671-99; Cecilia Konchar Farr, "It Was Chick Lit All. Along: The Gendering of a Genre," in You've Conte a Long Way, Baby: Women, Politics, and Popular Culture, ed. Lilly Goren (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2009), 201-14; and Ancmona Filip Alb, "Protean Femininities: Shifting Stereotypes in 'Chick Lit,'" Gender Studies 1, no. 7 (2008): 39-48.

(3.) Brenda Bethman, "Chick. Lit 101," NWSAction 18, no. 1 (2006): 12.

(4.) bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress (New York: Routledge, 1994), 15.

(5.) hooks, Teaching to Transgress, in.

(6.) For additional materials on feminist pedagogy see bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress; Munson and Lenker Gender and Academe; Arnie A. Macdonald and Susan Sanchez-Casal, eds., Twenty-First Century Feminist Classrooms: Pedagogies of Identity and Difference (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002); Carmen Luke and Jennifer Gore, eds., Fetninisms and Critical Pedagogy (New Yorki: Routledge, 1992); and Gail Cohee, Elisabeth Daumer, Theresa Kemp, Paula Krebs, Sue Latky, and Sandra Runzo, eds., The Feminist Teacher Anthology: Pedagogies and Classroom Strategies (New York: Teachers College Press, 1998).

(7.) Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young, "Introduction," in Chick Lit: The New Woman's Fiction, ed. Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young (New York: Routledge, 2006), 6.

(8.) hooks, Teaching to Transgress, 29-3o.

(9.) Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young, "A Generational Divide over Chick Lit," Chronicle of Higher Education, May 26, 2005, B13.

(10.) Bethman, "Chick Lit 101," 12.

(11.) See Chris Mazza, "Who's Laughing Now? A Short History of Chick Lit and the Perversion of a Genre," in Ferriss and Young, Chick Lit, 17-28.

(12.) Ferriss and Young, "Introduction," 2.

(13.) Caroline J. Smith, Cosmopolitan Culture and Consumerism in Contemporary Women's Popular Fiction (New York: Routledge, 2007), 4.

(14.) Ferriss and Young, "Introduction," 9.

(15.) Michiku Kakutani, "It's like Really Weird: Another Bad-Luck Babe," New York Times, May 16,1998.

(16.) Kakutani, "It's like Really Weird."

(17.) Diane de la Paz, "A Fearless Defender of Chick Lit," Tacoma News Tribune, May to, 2004.

(18.) See John Ezard, "Bainbridge Tilts at 'Chick Lit' Cult: Novelist says Bridget Jones Genre Is Just a Lot of Froth," Guardian, Aug. 4, 2001.

(19.) Qtd. in Ezard, "Bainbridge Tilts."

(20.) See also Stephanie Harzewski, "Tradition and Displacement in the New Novel of Manners," and. Juliette Wells, "Mothers of Chick Lit? Women Writers, Readers, and Literary History," both in Ferriss and Young, Chick Lit, 29-46,47-70.

(21.) Case, "Authenticity, Convention," 180.

(22.) Marsh, "Contextualizing Bridget Jones," 53.

(23.) Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones's Diary (New York: Penguin, 1996), 18.

(24.) Jessica Valenti, Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman's Guide to Why Feminism Matters (New York: Seal Press, 2007), 8.

(25.) Lisa S. Starks, "Hyper-feminisms: Poststructuralist Theories, Popular Culture, and Pedagogy," in Munson and Lenker, Gender and Academe, 113.

(26.) Decca Aitkenhead, "Bridget Jones: Don't Ya Just Love Her?" Guardian, Aug. 8, 1997; Fielding qtd. in Ezard, "Bainbridge Tilts," 7.

(27.) Fielding, Bridget Jones's Diary, 11

(28.) Fielding, Bridget Jones's Diary, 47.

(29.) Fielding, Bridget Jones's Diary, i8.

(30.) Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, woo), 21.

(31.) Smith, Cosmopolitan Culture, 7o.

(32.) Smith, Cosmopolitan Culture, 7o.

(33.) Fielding, Bridget Jones's Diary, 52.

(34.) For more on the relationship between magazine culture and chick lit see Smith, Cosmopolitan Culture.

(35.) Fielding, Bridget Jones's Diary,19.

(36.) Fielding, Bridget Jones's Diary, 65.

(37.) Fielding, Bridget Jones's Diary, 33.

(38.) The 2009 film adaptation of Confessions of a Shopaholic deviates so significantly from the text in both its scope (the setting is changed to New York) and its cultural commentary that I have not used it in class. Students who have seen the film before coming to class have been pleasantly surprised by the novel.

(39.) Sophie Kinsella, Confessions of a Shopaholic (New York: Dell, 2001), bo.

(40.) Smith, Cosmopolitan Culture, 16.

(41.) Kinsella, Confessions, 65.

(42.) Jessica Lyn Van Slooten, "Fashionably Indebted: Conspicuous Consumption, Fashion, and Romance in Sophie Kinsella's Shopaholic Trilogy," in Ferriss and Young, Chick Lit, 223.

(43.) Kinsella, Confessions, 156.

(44.) Ferriss and Young, "Introduction," 10.

(45.) Kinsella, Confessions, 1.

(46.) A. Rochelle Mabry, "About a Girl: Female Subjectivity and Sexuality in. Contemporary 'Chick' Culture in Ferriss and Young, Chick Lit,197.

(47.) hooks, Teaching to Transgress, 84.

(48.) Wells, "Mothers of Chick Lit?" 48.

(49.) Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 22.

(50.) Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1981), 77.

(51.) Woolf, Room of One's Own, 74.

(52.) Shari Benstock, "Afterword: The New Woman's Fiction," in Ferriss and Young, Chick Lit, 253.

(53.) Brenda Gross, "Old Maids and Helpful Husbands: Alerting Students to Gender Bias in Biography, Criticism, and Autobiography," in Munson and Lenker, Gender and Academe, 34.
COPYRIGHT 2012 University of Nebraska Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2012 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Wilson, Cheryl A.
Publication:Frontiers: A Journal of Women's Studies
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2012
Previous Article:Teaching about sexual violence in higher education: moving from concern to conscious resistance.
Next Article:Feminist currents.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters