Sunday, August 26, 2007

Feminism and Popular Culture: The Three Musketeers in Newcastle

Earlier this year Laura, An and I all went to the 20th Annual Feminist and Women's Studies (UK and Ireland) Association Conference on "Feminism and Popular Culture" in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. What follows is a short summary of the chick lit panel on the first day of the conference.


Kerstin Fest (University College Cork): "Nannies, Personal Assistants and Domestic Goddesses: Female Labour in Contemporary Chick Lit"

Fest started discussing the tension in Victorian literature between ideals of femininity and the working woman, and continued to show that the problem femininity vs. working woman also exists in contemporary chick lit. Typically, in chick lit a low-status job denotes a "good woman", whereas higher-status jobs are held by "bad women," and thus importance is still placed on traditional female virtues.

The workplace is usually depicted as cold, cut-throat, and a masculine sphere, which is no proper place for the empathetic heroine. Consequently, career women or simply women who are successful in their jobs are masculinized, or even demonized.

In the following Fest proved her thesis by analysing three chick lit novels from three different authors:

Because the heroine comes from a loving family, she is suitable for childcare and loving relationships. The novel contrasts the middle-class heroine with the cold and corrupted upper-class villainess, who has got no time for her child.

Again, the novel contrasts the good heroine, an all-American girl, with the villainess, a female boss stripped of her human features. According to Fest, the moral of the book is to curb one's ambition, or else you'll lose your soul and femininity.

In this novel, love and femininity are not to be found in London, but in the country, which is another example of the defemininizing influence of the work place.
Thus, chick lit can in many ways be regarded as a backlash against feminism: it is about the Angel in the House instead of girl power.


Rocio Montoro (University of Huddersfield): "Cappuccino Fiction and Feminism: A Stylistic Perspective on Chick Lit"

Montoro chose a stylistic approach to analyse texts, and contrasted the heroine's stance towards feminism with what her voice reveals. The paper certainly brought up a number of good points, but was also terribly flawed in many respects. First of all, Montoro came up with a new term, "cappuccino fiction," because just like cappuccino these books leave a sweet taste in your mouth [her words, not mine!!!]. However, from her definition it didn't become clear why she needed this new term in the first place, or whether the term referred to chick lit or romance or both. Only when she continued with her analysis it turned out the term was meant to refer to chick lit, because she contrasted cappuccino fiction with romance fiction, namely books by Barbara Cartland and typical Mills&Boon [Harlequin, for the Americans] novels. She concluded that heroines of cappuccino fiction are more active than those in typical romance fiction, partly because of the omniscient narrator in romance. [As you can see, it didn't really come as a surprise when she revealed in the following the discussion that she hadn't actually read a romance.]


Elena Pérez Serrano (University of Lleida): "Chick Lit and Marian Keyes: Pro-Feminism or Pro-Patriarchy?"

Serrano analysed the novels by Marian Keyes in order to find out whether chick lit is a profeminist genre or whether it upholds patriarchal values. In order to answer this question she compiled two different lists:

patriarchal discourses (as found in Keyes's novels)

  • women need men
  • singles are pathetic
  • marriage is the only option
  • traditional family = shelter
  • women should always look good
  • women were made to procreate
  • your job won't make you happy


feminist messages (as found in Keyes' novels)

  • whole woman
  • is there a 2nd sex?
  • not female eunuchs anymore
  • single girls – let's celebrate!
  • are men necessary?
  • lies and myths about beauty
  • the revolution from within

Serrano concluded that chick lit contains both patriarchal and feminist discourses, and that the patriarchal elements have been introduced due to commercial purposes.


It so happened that An Goris and I sat side by side during this panel, which we didn't know at the beginning. We only found out later when I felt the somewhat urgent need to join the discussion and rectify some assumptions about romance, and An figured I must be either Laura or Sandra, since we were the only three romance gals at the conference.


  1. Thank you for the synopsis!

  2. I missed this day of the conference, so thanks for the synopsis. I think I also remember you saying that one of the keynote speakers had said that she thought popular culture generally was not very feminist. Have I remembered that correctly?

    What I do have is the list of conference abstracts, so I thought I'd copy out a few bits from Kerstin Fest's abstract that add to what's written above:

    Typically, the women depicted are young, have only recently entered the professional world and have chosen to work in rather low-status jobs in areas like child caring or secretarial work. I argue that popular women's fiction very often presents a conflict between work and femininity and does so in a rather conservative way. The protagonists display typical 'feminine' traits such as empathy, a willingness to help others and a social awareness, which are constantly under threat in the professional world. [...] Contemporary chick lit shows a troubling tendency to reject the traditional tenets of feminism such as independence and equality as it celebrates traditional femininity and presents the work place as a hostile and essentially un-feminine place.

  3. But what if the Devil (wearing Prada), for example, was a male--or Scrooge, for a variant example? And the young employee who is empathetic, socially responsible, and so on is a woman who sees through these inhumane and sinister types? Or a young man for that matter who chooses to pursue his heart rather than follow the money? WHO do we justly admire then? TO argue that "independence" is a virtue might be a male plot anyway--no?

  4. Anonymous,

    TO argue that "independence" is a virtue might be a male plot anyway--no?

    See, identifying certain plots as "male" or "female" is restrictive. It's also damn silly, imo, and offensive when you claim that "independence" is a virtue belonging primarily (or only?) to "male plots."

    The problem isn't that there was one story like "The Devil Wears Prada," but that the book is part of a larger trend of ideas within the Chick Lit genre and larger society about what a good woman should be, and how independence and success in business is antithetical to being a good woman.

    If the story had been about a male boss and a female employee, the aspect of presenting a successful woman as a heartless "devil" in contrast to the sweet heroine would be missing, but the idea of business as no place for a good woman could still be present.

    If the story had been about a male boss and male employee, it would have touched on a different range of issues altogether; there isn't a social trend that I know of that tells men that going out there and striving ambitiously for position in the business world will make them less manly--or even necessarily less human; for every Scrooge, there are many tales in the media and entertainment of men going out and making themselves millionaires righteously-- the way that the presenter seemed to suggested that Chick Lit implies a woman who's successful in business is less womanly and less human.

  5. I agree with Angel that the problem isn't that one book portrays a bad female boss and a younger woman who decides that success (as defined by capitalism/consumerism) isn't for her.

    The question is really whether, within the novel, femininity is associated with "lack of success" and "lack of success" is portrayed as something that's only good for women.

    Looking at the genre more broadly, rather than a specific chick lit book, if all the heroines are women who "lack success" and all the "bad women" are the "successful" ones that would suggest there's an ideology within the genre that was opposed to "success" for women. Even though I've not read a lot of chick lit I very much doubt that there is this level of homogeneity within the genre. I also think that a critique of some working practices/environments does not necessarily imply a total rejection of "success". People "downsizing" their lives has been a trend in the past few years because they wanted to achieve a good work/life balance:

    With a third of British househunters reported to be trading down the property ladder in order to up their quality of life [...] [t]he downsizing trend is part of a fundamental shift to reassess our whole attitude to success and status. Practically, it means trying to live better with less. (BBC, 2005).

    Or, theoretically, such opposition to "success" could derive from, say, a socialist ideology. So what matters is why and how "success" is suggested to be bad for women and whether it's gendered (e.g. is it suggested that "success" is good for men but bad for women?)

    I don't think any trait, whether "independence" or "empathy" should be associated with just one gender since these traits can be found in people of both genders. So again, I'm with Angel in questioning whether there really is such a thing as a "male plot" (i.e. a plot that can only be written by men, for men, about male traits). The division of literature into "male plots" and "female plots" has, historically, contributed to the marginalisation of women writers. Many women writers were forced to write under male pseudonyms if they wanted to write "male plots" and, conversely, nowadays many male authors are forced to take female pseudonyms if they want to write "female plots", particularly if they want to write romances (a topic which has come up again in the past few days).

  6. I had several questions from the summary of the Fest paper as well. The analysis presented surely seems possible, but many rather different interpretations seem just as justified. For instance, if we accept the glass ceiling as something that women in general must fight against, we would naturally end up with many female characters by and large in lower corporate positions. If that is the starting point of the story precisely because it is the reality for most working women, then rejections of moving up the corporate ladder are as much issues of populism or class than gender.

    My basic idea is that it's relatively rare for someone lower on the corporate totem pole to view those higher up in positive terms. They are habitually portrayed as lacking in some virtue, and instead the virtues of one's background are celebrated. Isn't fiction full of people of both gender showing the shallowness of materialism? Hey, this is even a theme of the cartoon Flushed Away that I watched last night. For as much as popular culture celebrates the lives of the rich and famous, it is also replete with images of the wealthy as cold, removed, and often cruel.

    It would be great for Fest to control this factor by showing that even if you remove populism, celebration of one's background, class, etc., then still we have these gender issues.

    Actually, it seems a quite fascinating and difficult question to try separating the celebration of one's background with issues of gender. Is the celebration of particular gender roles any different than the celebration of the music you grew up with, the types of trees you climbed as a child, etc. As the saying goes, something is "as American as mom and apple pie."