It’s a Chick’s World An Analysis of Modern day Women as they are Portrayed in Contemporary Women’s Fiction also known as Chick Lit
Master’s thesis written by: Charlotte Stubben Number of characters in the thesis: 236.860 Supervisor: Torben Ditlevsen
Institute for Language and International Cultural Studies Aalborg University - June 2007
For Cathrine Stubben Rasmussen & Peter MĂ¸ller Rasmussen & The rest of My Family - my blood Family & my adopted Family Thanks!
This is the beginning of the rest of our lives.
Dear Diary: Remember me? Bridget Jones? Been awhile, luv. Nearly 10 years to be exact since I first sat down to madly scribble in these pages. Who knew my v.v. private musings would launch a decade of "chick lit" frothy tales of twentysomethings and thirtysomethings looking for weight loss, Mr. Right and the perfect job. (Memmott 2006)
Table of Contents Introduction .................................................................................................................................................... - 2 Research Questions ........................................................................................................................................ - 5 The beginning of Chick Lit ........................................................................................................................... - 6 What is Chick Lit? A History of the Genre................................................................................................. - 6 What to Expect when Reading Chick Lit .............................................................................................. - 8 How Chick Lit has Matured................................................................................................................. - 12 The Social Issues of Chick Culture (Theoretical Perspectives) .............................................................. - 14 Social Status – The Singleton & the Smug-Marrieds ............................................................................... - 15 The Cultural Expectations.................................................................................................................... - 15 The Singleton and the Smug-Married.................................................................................................. - 17 The Cultural Shift................................................................................................................................. - 19 Social Relations: The Role of Friendship Networks in Contemporary Society....................................... - 23 The ‘Adopted Family’ Concept ........................................................................................................... - 25 Social Belonging & Creation of Identity: A Historical Overview ........................................................... - 29 The Traditional, the Modern and the Postmodern Self ....................................................................... - 30 Anthony Giddens and the Postmodern Self......................................................................................... - 33 Social Communication: Fashion as Communication & Identity Markers .............................................. - 35 Dress for Success.................................................................................................................................. - 37 Dress for Acknowledgement................................................................................................................ - 38 Chick Culture as Social Context............................................................................................................... - 41 An Analysis of Contemporary Women’s Fiction ..................................................................................... - 44 Introduction to the Novels......................................................................................................................... - 45 Lipstick Jungle (2005) – Candace Bushnell ........................................................................................ - 45 Singletini (2006) – Amanda Trimble................................................................................................... - 46 Getting Rid of Matthew (2007) – Jane Fallon..................................................................................... - 47 The Social Status of the Chicks................................................................................................................. - 50 The Social Relations of the Chicks ........................................................................................................... - 62 The Social Belonging of the Chicks .......................................................................................................... - 73 Social Communication & the Chicks........................................................................................................ - 89 Chick Lit: Realist or Escapist Entertainment? ........................................................................................ - 96 Conclusion................................................................................................................................................... - 100 Bibliography ............................................................................................................................................... - 102 Summary ..................................................................................................................................................... - 107 -
Introduction In this thesis I will address contemporary women’s fiction, also known as the literary phenomenon chick lit, from a cultural point of view. Therefore, I will apply theories associated with cultural studies as well as communication studies to my analysis of a selection of chick lit novels. Before turning my attention to the phenomenon and the novels, I will clarify what it means to do cultural studies and secondly, I will elaborate on my chosen method, namely cultural text studies (CTS).
According to During (1999) “cultural studies is not an academic discipline quite like others. It possesses neither a well-defined methodology nor clear demarcated fields for investigation. Cultural studies is, of course, the study of culture, or, more particularly, the study of contemporary culture” (During 1999: 1). In other words, culture is not defined in the narrow sense of ‘objects of aesthetic excellence (‘high art’)’, but culture is understood as the ‘texts/meanings and practices of everyday life’ (Sim 2001). Therefore, cultural studies includes a whole range of fields, such as political economy, literary theory, sociology, media theory, social theory, philosophy, anthropology, etc. In other words, cultural studies is an interdisciplinary field and because of all the available combinations it becomes possible to study cultural phenomena in our everyday life. In this context it is important to stress the fact that in cultural studies the idea of text not only includes written language, but also film, photographs, fashion, hairstyles, etc. So, by applying the research method CTS to chick lit novels, I am able to both study texts culturally and study culture as text. As Sørensen (2005) puts forward, “it is “cultural text studies” in the sense that the object of study consists of all readable cultural phenomena which are regarded as texts in a much more broadly defined sense than in the traditional field of literary studies” (Elias & Sørensen 2005: 5). CTS makes it possible for me to investigate the chick lit phenomenon, and additionally it also helps to shed light on some of the essential issues being addressed in contemporary women’s fiction as well as parts of our contemporary culture.
This means that analytically I will focus on our contemporary culture, and look at how it is depicted in contemporary women’s fiction. Therefore, I will use chick lit novels as a means of analyzing our culture, instead of focusing on an in-depth literary analysis of a single novel. I will look at the ways the genre depicts women – the chicks – as modern,
contemporary women in order to explore both the term chick lit and the term chick. Furthermore, I will look into media influence in our contemporary culture, and how these influences come across in contemporary popular fiction. One might ask why it is important to study the media in order to understand our contemporary culture. Let alone why one needs to have an understanding of our contemporary culture in order to investigate chick lit novels. Throughout my thesis, I will get deeper into some of the key aspects of our contemporary culture, and thereby illustrate the importance of media and cultural studies when dealing with contemporary fiction such as chick lit. Before I go any further, I will briefly return to the question of why it is important to study the media.
In this thesis I will treat chick lit novels as a medium. This approach is useful when dealing with the chick lit phenomenon, because it is important to be aware of the popular culture surrounding it, and not just read the novels word by word. Chick lit novels contain many cultural markers of our contemporary culture, and are therefore important in relation to our understanding of contemporary women and their everyday situations. According to Silverstone (1999) we “must study the media because the media are central to experiences. They inform, reflect, express experience, our experience, on a daily basis” (Silverstone 1999: 78). The media give us some ideas about the world, clues to define reality around us in pictures, sound and writing. Correspondingly, the media help us to define what is good and bad, funny or sad and so on. Since we are at the receiving end of the media output, we have to form some sort of understanding of where we are in our lives (our place in the world), who we are, who we would like to be and more importantly, who we would not like to be. This kind of self-concept is what we like to call identity. The concept of identity will be my overall theme in my analysis of the chick lit novels. Throughout this thesis I will investigate how one’s self-identity is connected with one’s navigation of life.
Another important term in relation to this is identification. It is interesting in relation to reading fiction, and in this case contemporary women’s fiction. Gripsrud argues that we know “at the outset that what we read, hear and see is an ‘as if’ or hypothetical world, a world that appears between inverted commas, quotation marks” (ibid). We have some sort of awareness that what we see, read or hear is something that someone has made or constructed, which he backs with the argument that the Latin meaning of the word fictio
originally was â€˜madeâ€™. Whether the text is a wildly unrealistic one, a far-fetched science fiction adventure or something else, Gripsrud stresses the fact that we get involved in the story. In other words, we experience identification. This is rather interesting in relation to the chick lit phenomenon, because what is it about this literary genre that gets so many people involved? What is it that makes it so easy for many readers to identify with the issues the chicks encounter in the novels? I will give some answers throughout this thesis as I explore this phenomenon.
Research Questions This thesis will be an investigation of the everyday life of the chick in the chick lit genre as well as an investigation of chick culture. My principal research question is: Chick lit is said to represent women’s lives in our contemporary society, but what kind of life is the modern day chick living according to contemporary popular fiction?
In order to answer this question, I will use a line of sub-questions such as, how does the chick construct her identity in contemporary society? Which factors are important for her choice in life? What sort of picture does chick lit send out about contemporary women? I will address issues such as shopping, partner status, identity creation, career choices, etc. In other words, my theoretical approach will be a socio-cultural one. Therefore, I will analyze the novels based on the following issues: ‘social status’, ‘social relations’, ‘social belonging’ and ‘social communication’. These are all issues that contemporary women’s fiction deals with in one way or the other. Furthermore, Ferriss & Young (2006) argue that “a serious consideration of chick lit brings into focus many of the issues facing contemporary women and contemporary culture—issues of identity, of race and class, of femininity and feminism, of consumerism and self-image” (Ferriss & Young 2006: 2-3). I will use Ferriss & Young’s approach, i.e. “a serious consideration of chick lit”, and look into various chick lit novels and discuss the genre’s portrayal of modern women. In other words, this approach enables me to look beyond the literary content of the novels, and allows me to investigate the cultural effects and forms depicted in the novels in more detail.
The beginning of Chick Lit Before I turn my attention to the theoretical perspectives and my analysis of the literary phenomenon, I will briefly clarify what chick lit is. Therefore, I will begin with a short overview of the literary phenomenon. I will also address the urtext of modern day chick lit, namely Bridget Jones’s Diary1 (1996) by Helen Fielding in order to pinpoint some of the most important themes in the novel as well as the genre. These themes can be found in many chick lit novels and short stories written after that, and therefore they have become part of or even synonymous with the chick lit formula. I will also briefly touch upon the American counterpart Sex and the City2 (1996) written by Candace Bushnell, because along with BJD, it represents important aspects of what has now become known under the category chick lit. But before turning to BJD and SATC, I will introduce the term chick lit in order to establish what is understood by the term and also what categorizes a novel as a chick lit novel in the first place.
What is Chick Lit? A History of the Genre In 1996 Helen Fielding’s book Bridget Jones’s Diary was published. It was a huge success, and it was groundbreaking for the new kind of women’s fiction, now known as chick lit. According to Elizabeth Merrick (2006), chick lit is “a genre, like the thriller, the sci-fi novel, or the fantasy epic” (Merrick 2006: vii). BJD launched a new way of writing and a new genre within the publishing industry. Cathy Yardley characterizes the genre as “a subgenre of the larger classification of women’s fiction, generally a coming-of-age or “coming-of-consciousness” story where a woman’s life is transformed by the events of the story” (Yardley 2006: 4). Furthermore, Yardley also argues that chick lit generally has a sense of humor. According to her it has “a funny tone and voice, but, more important, the characters don’t take themselves too seriously, no matter how dire the circumstances” (ibid). In short, Yardley concludes that chick lit deals with topics that affect a women’s life, in her words that is: “friendship dynamics. Glass ceilings. Over-nurturing. Kids and biological clocks. And, of course, love” (Yardley 2006: 5). Additionally, Sarah Mlynowski (2006) writes that 1 2
I will refer to Bridget Jones’s Diary as BJD and Bridget Jones as BJ from now on. I will refer to Sex and the City as SATC from now on.
chick lit is often upbeat, always funny fiction about contemporary female characters and their everyday struggles with work, home, friendship, family, or love. It’s about women growing up and figuring out who they are and what they need versus what they think they want. It’s about observing life and finding the humor in a variety of situations, exchanges, and people. It’s about coming of age (no matter how old the woman is—chick lit heroines can be anywhere from teenaged to beyond middle-aged). It’s generally written by women for women. It’s honest, it reflects women’s lives today—their hopes and dreams as well as their trials and tribulations (Mlynowski 2006: 10).
In the book Chick Lit: The New Woman’s Fiction (2006) Ferriss & Young also describe what chick lit is and along with its other contributors, they analyze the phenomenon from various angles from its origins and influences to various subgenres and to postfeminist analysis of the phenomenon. Ferriss & Young (2006) agree that “[w]hen we consider the origins of Chick Lit, a single urtext clearly presents itself: Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary (1996). The entire Chick Lit phenomenon is invariably traced back to this single novel”3 (Ferriss & Young 2006: 4). According to Yardley (2006), chick lit might have been a purely British import if it were not for Melissa Bank’s book, Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing (1999). Yardley claims that Bank’s book might have gone unnoticed by the literary fiction world, if it had not been for the success of BJD and other British authors such as Marian Keyes. Along with BJD and SATC, Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing is considered to be part of the first chick lit novels. However, many others soon followed. Some of the most popular titles and best known authors include: Jennifer Weiner’s Good in Bed (2001), Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic series, McLaughlin & Kraus’s The Nanny Diaries (2002), Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada (2003), Marian Keyes’ Last Chance Saloon, Jane Green’s Jemima J (2001), Plum Stykes’ Bergdorf Blondes (2004), Meg Cabot’s The Boy Next Door (2002) and Anna Maxted’s Running in Heels (2002).
Another important aspect of chick lit history is the fact that the television series Sex and the City (1998-2004) – the adaptation of the book by the same title by Candace Bushnell – became such a huge success. Bushnell’s book is based upon her “mid-nineties columns for
However, as Ferriss & Young point out, the genesis of chick lit might not be so simple. It is a well-known fact that Fielding borrowed much of her plot and characters from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Since this is the case with other chick lit novels as well, Ferriss & Young claim that “Bridget Jones—(…)—proves to be indebted to women’s literature of the past—and, at the same time, completely independent of it” (Ferriss & Young 2006: 5). This is a much debated issue when writing about chick lit, however, since my focus is on the cultural aspect of the genre I will not go into further details about it.
the New York Observer about negotiating the urban dating jungle in the ‘cruel planet that is Manhattan’” (Akass 2004: 3). Bushnell’s column achieved something of a cult status among its readership, and among those was TV creator, writer and producer Darren Star. Bushnell and Star became friends and he optioned her book before its release and then began developing it for TV. Yardley points out some of the reasons why it became such a success: [I]t became a smash hit by projecting what reading audiences already loved about Chick Lit: pop culture, high fashion, urban settings, and women they could relate to. Protagonists were single; in their twenties and thirties [sic – they were in their thirties and early forties]; and dealing with shoddy relationships, career troubles, financial issues, and biological clocks, all while maintaining a circle of friends that were, for all intents and purposes, closer than any blood family (Yardley 2006: 8).
The television series won numerous awards, among them Golden Globes, and will probably go down in history as a portrayal of contemporary women’s lives in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
What to Expect when Reading Chick Lit From this brief overview of what chick lit is, and its development, I will elaborate a bit more on what one can expect to find when reading a chick lit novel. I will mostly draw on comments made by various chick lit authors who took part in a roundtable discussion, arranged by AuthorsOnTheWeb.com, about the essential elements of a chick lit novel, the impact these books can have on female (and male) readers and so on. Furthermore, I will briefly pinpoint some of the characteristics of ‘traditional’ chick lit as well as address some of the new trends within the genre.
According to Yardley, there is a set of characteristics that comprise what she calls ‘traditional’ chick lit. These characteristics are important in the early works within the genre, however, they have been used so much that they are now considered chick lit clichés. These characteristics include urban location, glam industries, the gay best friend, the evil boss, infidelity, dates, Mr. Wrongs, fashion, popular culture, etc. I will address the most important characteristics in order to get a better understanding of the kind of problems the chick lit heroines meet along their ways. The ‘urban location’ was very essential to the early chick lit novels such as BJD and SATC. In the early novels the -8-
location was more often that not either London or New York. According to Yardley, the idea behind using an urban location is to “provide what is assured to be a more exciting, fast-paced, high-toned lifestyle” (Yardley 2006: 10). She uses the television series SATC as an example, where New York City was just as much a character as the four women. Furthermore, a metropolitan setting makes it possible to show more expensive clothing, more up-scaled industries.
The use of ‘glam industries’ is connected with the fact that the protagonists usually are working in glamorous companies such as publishing, fashion houses, film and TV companies, or advertising agencies. What they all have in common is the fact that they are not at the top of any of the industries, but rather the hard working unappreciated worker, who are trying to climb the ladder. The glam industries are meant to illustrate the fastpaced lifestyle. The ‘gay best friend’ has become such a cliché, but worked well in the early chick lit novels such as BJD and SATC, especially the television series. The gay best friend is someone the protagonist can confide in, when all the good guys have been taken and the gay best friend is good for fashion tips and shopping. The ‘evil boss’ serves as a character the reader loves to hate, and someone who makes the heroine come across as the one to root for. ‘Infidelity’ is usually used as a springboard for the heroine. A good example is BJD. Bridget is fooling around with her good-looking boss Daniel Cleaver, whom she finds with another younger, good-looking woman. Bridget storms out of Cleaver’s house, and soon engages in a romantic relationship with the more emotional barrister Mr. Darcy. However, in the end Cleaver realizes that he has made a mistake, and tries to get back with Bridget. By then she is in the beginning of a relationship with Mr. Darcy, and she has to choose between the two of them. In the traditional way, the two men encourage each other to a fight, and whoever wins, gets the girl. In the end, Bridget realizes that it is Mr. Darcy she wants and a happy ending is restored. ‘Lots of dates and Mr. Wrongs’ are also essential in a chick lit novel, because a chick needs to try on different types of men before finding her perfect match.
The ‘fashion’ aspect of chick lit novels might have to do with the cities the heroines live in or the industries they work in. One thing is certain, whether you are a PA or editor of a magazine, you dress fashionably. Chick lit is very much about name dropping brands such
as Prada, Chanel, Gucci, Manolo Blahnik, Jimmy Choo, Givenchy, Juicy Couture, etc. Yardley argues that it “plays directly on a reader’s sense of lifestyle envy” (Yardley 2006: 14). Good examples of the use of fashion and name dropping are the Shopaholic series by Sophie Kinsella and Plum Sykes’s Bergdorf Blondes (2004). References to ‘Popular culture’ were and still are a big part of chick lit novels. These references make it easier to experience identification when reading the novels.
During the roundtable discussion arranged by AuthorsOnTheWeb.com, chick lit authors commented on what they believed characterized a chick lit novel, and what kind of issues the genre deals with. To the question “What makes a book chick lit?” Carole Matthews answers that chick lit books “deal with modern day issues that affect young women” (http:// # 1) 4. Another author, Marian Keys, says that she “would expect it to be humorous and to cover topics of interest to women --- i.e. what is our place in a man’s world and how do we get what we want. It's usually based in reality rather than escapist, sex 'n' shopping or bonkbuster literature”. Jennifer Weiner and Valerie Frankel describe what they believe are the basic elements of a chick lit novel as “[a] smart-yet-wounded female heroine, who’s young(ish), accomplished but insecure, dealing with (pick one) body image woes, romantic misery, a dysfunctional family or a tyrannical boss, trying to find her way in life. They’re sort of late-stage-coming-of-age stories”, with the heroines living in contemporary, usually urban settings.
When asked about the audience of chick lit, authors such as Jennifer Weiner believe that the readers of chick lit novels are a lot like the characters in the novels and that they are “looking for fiction that serves as both entertaining and road map”. Weiner’s theory is that her “generation of women has more choices and options available than any generation in history, and that these choices are empowering but also terrifying. I think that novels, even the ones described as light ‘n’ fluffy, can help them think through their choices and make peace with their decisions”. However, the general conclusion among the authors is that women and some men of all ages read chick lit, and even more now that the genre has expanded with lots of different sub-genres, which I will return to shortly. Sherrie Krantz argues that there is a value to chick lit other than escapism or entertainment when she says,
All quotations in the following are from this website.
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“Chick Lit affirms the reader's own state of mind, as they tend to see a little bit of themselves and their families and their friends in Chick Lit novels. It makes them realize that they are not alone and that their fears, issues, expectations and concerns are shared with women all over the planet”.
AuthorsOnTheWeb.com poses the following question, which is rather interesting in connection with chick culture. “Fashion and beauty magazines --- and in fact, our entire culture --- surround women with images that often make them feel they are inferior. Do you think that Chick Lit, where women admit failure and address body issues and make mistakes, allows women to feel better about themselves? Explain”. Carole Matthews agrees with the claim, saying that: Surprisingly, you can have a great life even if you're not a size four with a pert nose! I think the Chick Lit message is that women are now empowered to do whatever they want --- we have the wherewithal to go for it! Chick Lit embraces the concept that life isn't perfect, it's full of mistakes and misdemeanours --- but it's real life and life is for living! Chick Lit girls might not always get the guy --but they survive! They'll be stronger for the experience and will move onwards and upwards in life. I find it a very uplifting genre to write in (http:// # 1).
Marian Keyes also agrees, and uses her fan mail as evidence. She argues that in her fan mail she reads about how readers feel that chick lit books have helped them. Keyes claims that “[b]ooks can explain the world to us, and explain ourselves and our reactions to the world. Readers can find that they are not alone”. In addition to this, Donna Kauffman comments on the ending of chick lit stories by saying that “[t]he ending, while not necessarily wrapping up her life in a tidy bow, usually winds up with the heroine feeling a sense of hope about the direction her life is heading”. In other words, one could argue that chick lit novels can be seen as road maps for modern day women, and by not providing a typical Hollywood ending, but leaving it open, and up to the female heroine to sort out the rest of her life, it makes it easier to relate to and identify with the stories being told. This line of thought is also shared by some of the contributors to the short story collection, This is Chick Lit (2006) edited by Lauren Baratz-Logsted. For instance, contributor Stephanie Lehman argues that [t]hese days women are expected to be ambitious yet wear six-inch heels. We’re expected to be supermoms during the day and sex kittens at night. Is it fair to say the ideal woman is both Madonna and whore? It’s not surprising that to be female is to feel inadequate. Chick-lit novels can be a great relief from all this.
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They are a dialogue between women. They provide a context where women writers create women characters that resonate for women readers (Lehman in Baratz-Logsted 2006: 235).
Furthermore, Caren Lissner, also a contributor to the short story collection, argues that chick lit is a genre that women can emphasize with and learn from, because as she says, “[w]omen have so many choices nowadays, but the tough part is making the ones that work for the next sixty years. “Chick-lit,” whether an individual book falls into the entertainment or literary category, helps us laugh and think about all the risks, responsibilities and ramifications of our choices” (Lissner in Baratz-Logsted 2006:159). From this overview of what one can expect to find when reading chick lit, I will move on to an illustration of how chick lit has matured over the past decade, from the first novels about being ‘Single-in-the-City’, to the recent ‘Yummy Mummy Lit’ and ‘Hen Lit’, as well as non-fictional chick lit.
How Chick Lit has Matured Chick lit might have started out as literature about single girls living in the big city, such as BJD and SATC, but during the past decade, chick lit novels have matured with their authors, and have extended into novels about married women, motherhood, teenagers, nannies and so on. Besides the ‘Single-in-the-City’ category, chick lit also includes subgenres which follow the supposed life stages such as ‘Teen Lit’ (coming of age stories about teenagers. This subgenre includes series like Gossip Girl by Cecily von Ziegesar), ‘Bride Lit’ (chick lit about young women who are about to walk down the aisle, or are about to be bridesmaids), ‘Mom Lit’ (young women juggling life as a new mom and all the things that come with being a mother), ‘Hen Lit’ (young-at-heart women juggling kids, life, grandchildren etc. A good example is the popular television show Desperate Housewives (2004- )). Then there is also chick lit which could be categorized as crosspollinated with other genres. There is ‘Mystery Chick Lit’ (crime solving chicks e.g. Jennifer Weiner’s Goodnight Nobody ), ‘Christian Lit’ (books with no swearing and no premarital sex, in other words, books with attitudes and mind-sets that reflect that ideology), ‘Multicultural Lit’ (African American chick lit, Hispanic chick lit, Asian chick lit, Indian chick lit, etc.), and ‘Paranormal Lit’ (A good example is Mary Janice Davidson’s Undead and Unwed series about a “fashion shoe fetishist and unwitting queen of the vampires” (Yardley 2006: 24)). - 12 -
Furthermore, one could also divide chick lit novels into thematic subgenres. The most used ones are ‘Gossip Lit’ (such as the Gossip Girl series by Cecily von Ziegesar, Bergdorf Blondes by Plum Sykes, Lipstick Jungle by Candace Bushnell, Fashion Slaves by Louise de Teliga, etc), ‘Assistant Lit’ (such as The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger), ‘Plus-Sized Lit’ (such as Good in Bed by Jennifer Weiner, Jemima J by Jane Green, Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding, etc.). Lastly, there is the ‘non-fictional’ chick lit (such as The New Single Woman by E. Kay Trimberger, Single: The Art of Being Satisfied, Fulfilled, and Independent by Judy Ford). In other words, women of all ages can now find literature within the chick lit genre aimed at their particular age group or stage in life on the bookshelves. This means that chick lit is a growing genre with a well-developed marketing strategy. One could argue that it started out as a twenty-first-century marketing term, or one could argue, as Yardley does that chick lit is in fact an attitude: “The fact that the marketing and voice of Chick Lit has spilled over from the fiction aisles is the ultimate proof that Chick Lit is not a series of stock elements, but an attitude” (Yardley 2006:26). There is no reason to believe that this genre will disappear any time soon, because it keeps expanding its range with new sub-genres and new lifestyle issues to discuss.
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The Social Issues of Chick Culture (Theoretical Perspectives) In this section of the thesis, I will take a theoretical approach to some of the main topics being addressed by contemporary women’s fiction. In order to investigate the genre from a cultural point of view, I have chosen some main issues, which occur in various chick lit novels, as well as being central themes in our contemporary culture. I have decided on a social approach, and will therefore address the following themes: ‘social status’; ‘social relations’; ‘social belonging’ and ‘social communication’.
The theme ‘social status’ includes speculations and illustrations about the choice of lifestyle, whether one chooses to live life as a singleton or as part of a couple. In this part of the thesis, I will look at what social factors determine one’s social status in relation to relationships, and also the cultural shift that seems to have taken place. In relation to chick lit, I will also use Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary as an illustration of this cultural shift. ‘Social relations’ is also an important theme in popular women’s fiction, because women are choosing to postpone or even reject marriage and having children, and therefore their friends become a very essential part of their everyday lives. In other words, friendship functions as a way of feeling connected to other people, other than your family. In a friendship network people get closeness and comfort, but the network also lets one be relatively independent. In short, this part will deal with the role of friendship for modern day women, as well as look into the concept of the ‘adopted’ family.
‘Social belonging’ will be dealt with in relation to the question of identity. I will look at identity creation throughout the years, ranging from the traditional self, through the modern self and finally to the postmodern self. Since the postmodern self is the most interesting in relation to contemporary women’s fiction, I will only briefly describe the main currents that went before the postmodern self. Finally, I will deal with ‘social communication’ in terms of fashion as communication. As I have pointed out earlier in this thesis, fashion or how one looks is very important in chick lit novels, as well as in our contemporary culture. Therefore, I will investigate fashion as an extended view of how we portray our self-identity to others. From this short overview of the content of this section, I will begin my theoretical considerations on the topics.
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Social Status – The Singleton & the Smug-Marrieds In this part of the thesis, I will focus on the rise of the single person and look at what might have brought this on culturally. In other words, I will look at how people choose to live in our contemporary society, whether or not they choose the single life or as Bridget Jones would say choose the ‘smug-married’ life. This rise of the single person, and in this case the single woman in particular, is very interesting in connection with chick lit novels and chick culture. A look at the recent development of coupledom versus single life might give some answers to how people live nowadays, as well as give clues as to how the chick lives, and why. Furthermore, I will also look at the cultural division between single and married women, because it seems that they are placed in competition with each other, based on cultural norms.
According to an article in The Observer November 5, 2000, the rise of the single person is “the greatest social phenomenon of our time” (Observer 2000). Furthermore, the article claims that “[f]or the first time, being single is a proactive lifestyle choice, like the car you drive, the food you eat, or the books you read” (ibid). In other words, “[p]eople are no longer willing to settle for settling down” (ibid). There is no longer a single stigma attached to you if you choose to be single after a certain age, or at least that is the argument of the article. Additionally, the article emphasizes that ‘friends are the new family’, something I will return to later on in this thesis. But first I will look at the cultural expectations.
The Cultural Expectations One obvious suggestion as to why BJD became such a huge success is its appeal to a certain group of people at a certain stage of life; she was a kind of everywoman of the 1990s. According to Whelehan (2002), the novel reflects the “tastes, trends and popular cultural milieux of glossy women’s magazines and popular television in the mid 1990s” (Whelehan 2002: 13). Therefore, many readers find Bridget very recognizable because they have the same ‘cultural diet’ as her. In other words, they are dealing with the same kind of questions about life, trying to figure out their aspirations as well as their consumer tastes, just like Bridget is in the two novels written about her character. “Bridget was seen
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by many to be confessing the shortcomings of a generation, rather than her own particular brand of frailty” (Whelehan 2002: 15). Or as Bridget puts it in her diary, Wednesday 15 March Humph. Have woken up v. fed up. On top of everything, only two weeks to go until birthday, when will have to face up to the fact that another entire year has gone by, during which everyone else expect me to has mutated into Smug Married, having children plop, plop, plop, left right and centre and making hundreds of thousands of pounds and inroads into very hub of establishment, while I career rudderless and boyfriendless through dysfunctional relationships and professional stagnation (Fielding 1996: 77-78).
Bridget’s entry seems to highlight many of the issues addressed in contemporary women’s fiction. The fact that the clock is ticking, both in terms of age and in terms of babies, as well as the pressure to come across as a successful adult, who is in control of every aspect of one’s life. Readers greeted BJD as a phenomenon and they agreed that it offered something new and refreshing and that it had something to say about contemporary living. Whelehan suggests that BJD is “a commentary on the 1990s, but shows the underside of “cool Britannia” in the sense that Bridget aspires to attain the trappings of success – a better job, a boyfriend, more exciting leisure activities – but struggles to control the chaos of her own life” (Whelehan 2002: 14-15). Equally, Fielding claims that many women readers recognize themselves in the novel. She says that no matter where she was in the world, when she talked to women, they all related to the problems Bridget was going through. She says: [W]hat they most related to is the massive gap between the way women feel they’re expected to be and how they actually are. These are complicated times for women. Bridget is groping through the complexities of dealing with relationships in a morass of shifting roles, and a bombardment of idealized images of modern womanhood. It seems she’s not the only one who’s confused (Fielding quoted in Whelehan 2002: 17).
One of the most important things the women recognized was Bridget’s struggles to live up to society’s expectations about one’s social status. As sociologist E. Kay Trimberger (2005) argues, we live in a culture that tells us that in order to find happiness we need to find a partner, a soul mate. In other words, “[o]nly in an intimate couple, the culture tells us, will we find emotional satisfaction, sexual fulfillment, companionship, security, and spiritual meaning” (Trimberger 2005: x). In order to be happy, one needs to find a partner,
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and not just any partner, it has to be one’s soul mate5. Trimberger posits that this cultural emphasis on finding a soul mate leaves a difficult and contradictory legacy, because as she argues “[t]he contemporary soul-mate ideal originates in the idealism and egalitarianism of second-wave feminism, but it reinforces the idea that only through coupled love can one be truly fulfilled” (Trimberger 2005: 4). This cultural message is, as Trimberger argues reinforced by family and coupled friends. Trimberger suggests that mothers of single women over the age of thirty-five “often impose the coupled ideal on their daughters” (Trimberger 2005: xx). She elucidates that it is commonplace “to brag about the educational accomplishments and career advancement” (ibid) of one’s 27 year old single daughter, whereas a mother of a 50 year old ever-single daughter, would worry, saying things like “‘I worry about Janet’s being alone. I wish she would meet someone and settle down’” (ibid). The mother does not focus on the fact that the 50 year old daughter has bought her own home, has a lot of friends and a fulfilling career, because being 50 or 35 for that matter and not coupled, does not fulfill the cultural expectations. Furthermore, this cultural ideal of coupledom has also left young women terrified of ending up alone, or as Fielding writes in BJD, “[a]s women glide from their twenties to thirties (…) the balance of power subtly shifts. Even the most outrageous minxes lose their nerve, wrestling with the first twinges of existential angst: fears of dying alone and being found three weeks later half-eaten by an Alsatian” (Fielding 2001: 20). This fear of ending up alone is also visible in terms of how married people, or “smug-marrieds” to quote BJ again, are perceived by single people, something I will return to shortly.
The Singleton and the Smug-Married In the wake of BJD, both the novel and the movie, the word, ‘singleton’, has become popular as a “(self-) description of individuals without romantic partners, particularly applied to women in their thirties. There is an undertone to this use of ignoring societal pressures towards marriage and motherhood” (Wikipedia 2007 - singleton). Whelehan argues that readers of BJD feel that there is “a link between Bridget and their own realities, or at least that Bridget says something genuinely new about single life” (Whelehan 2002:
“someone with whom one can combine love, fidelity, emotional intimacy, and togetherness” (Trimberger 2005:1)
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21). Moreover, Fielding said in an interview that “single women today, sort of in their thirties, are perhaps a new type of woman that hasn’t really got an identity. And that’s all very worrying. Women have said to me: it makes us feel like we’re part of a club and we’re not the only ones that feel that stupid” (Whelehan 2002: 26). Correspondingly, Whelehan argues that there is a special connection to single, thirtysomething women, because their lives might be similar to Bridget’s and they might even be on a similar trajectory. Chick lit author Sarah Mlynowski, also argues that the reason why chick lit is so popular is because “[r]eaders in general want to read fiction that reflects their lives, and that validates their lives. When people started watching “Sex and the City” they were like “That’s amazing, that’s my life.” For the first time tons of contemporary fiction reflects these lives” (Mlynowski in Theriault 2006). Whelehan, however, stresses that BJD does not solely appeal to ‘singletons’ but “in representing a stage of life that people inevitably pass through, there are elements in the novel (particularly in the spirit of the confessional) that might convince readers that they are in some ways encountering themselves” (Whelehan 2002: 25).
BJD addressed a social issue namely that more and more people are living in single households. According to Whelehan, the novel presents the perils of contemporary singleness in a critical light. The critique, however, is double-edged, because single life in the novel emerges with a number of contradictory associations. Whelehan argues that “[the] freedom that single life offers is seen to be compromised by popular wisdoms about that naturalness of coupledom; there is also the association of singleness with loneliness – or worse, social ineptitude or downright unattractiveness” (Whelehan 2002: 26). Bridget and her friends rightly identify that there seems to be a greater stigma attached to being single and female after a certain age. In other words, there seems to be an outside pressure to engage in heterosexual relationships (See section about Cultural Expectations).
According to Whelehan, spinsters have always been cast in a less attractive light than bachelors. This point is also noticeable when you look at the meaning of the two words in a dictionary. A spinster is a woman who has remained single beyond the conventional age for marrying; whereas, a bachelor is only referred to as a man who has never married. There is no ‘time-limit’ as to when it is appropriate for a man to marry as seems to be the
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case with women, because apparently there is a conventional age for a woman to get married. Traditionally, a bachelor has also been seen as “carefree, worldly wise and, most importantly, consciously choosing to be alone”, whereas spinsters are “always cast as the poor unfortunates who don’t quite qualify as marriage material for any number of reasons” (Whelehan 2002: 27).
The Cultural Shift BJD reflects on a cultural shift and attitude, namely the championing of single life, where surveys have shown that more and more households will have single occupants, a fact that Bridget’s friend Shazzer comments on when she says: “one in four households are single, most of the royal family are single, the nation’s young men have been proved by surveys to be completely unmarriageable, and as a result there’s a whole generation of single girls like me with their own incomes and homes who have lots of fun and don’t need to wash anyone else’s socks” (Fielding 2001: 42). Furthermore, an article in the Guardian from 1999 claims that “by 2007, there will be a 600,000 surplus of men in their 30s; by 2010, 40% of all households will be single and experts say it is women, with their welldeveloped social networks, who will thrive, while men are more likely to experience depression” (Chaudhuri 1999). Furthermore, Trimberger (2005) points to statistics that showed that in 2000 42% of all women in the US over the age of 18 were unmarried, or 44 million women (in comparison ‘only’ 38 million men were unmarried). Additionally, she points to the fact that the “percentage of single-person households (25.8) is now greater than that of households with a married couple and one or more children (23.5)” (Trimberger 2005: xiv). Trimberger argues that this increase in the percentage of single women is due to the fact that women choose to postpone marriage and that more choose to leave a marriage if it is not working out.
If we look at women in the age range in which they are most likely to be married (between 25-55) there has been quite a change since 1963. In 1963, 83% of women between 25 and 55 were married; by 1997 the figure has dropped to 65%6 (Edwards 2000). An 18% point change is even surprising to a sociologist quoted in the article. The question is why has it
I can only assume that this study was based on American Women.
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dropped almost 20 percentage points? In the book Media, Gender and Identity (2004) David Gauntlett has an argument which might be worth taking into consideration when trying to figure out what has caused this drop. Since almost nobody on TV remains happily married for a lifetime – whether we’re talking about fictional characters or real-life public figures – we inevitably receive a message that monogamous heterosexual stability is, at best, a rare ‘ideal’, which few can expect to achieve (Gauntlett 2004: 98).
Furthermore, chick lit can be seen as serving as a mouthpiece for contemporary women, because like contemporary media culture there seems to be an open debate about whether or not finding the one is the only way to lead a successful life. Chick lit novels such as BJD and movies such as The Sweetest Thing (2001) along with popular television shows such as SATC – all good examples of chick culture – show an important shift in the way the media portray women’s popular texts. This shift is especially visible in the way the media look at women’s experiences and desires. Rochelle Mabry (2006) argues that “[t]hrough various narrative and ideological shifts, chick novels and film give contemporary women voice and allow them to express desires that may lie outside the “happy-ever-after” marriage to Prince Charming” (Mabry 2006: 192).
This cultural shift is also an issue, which is mentioned in the Time article “Flying Solo” (Edwards 2000) where themes like single people, women and social conditions are discussed. A young single woman, Hannaman, 32, is used as an example of the changes our society has gone through. It is no longer unacceptable to say that you are single, to eat alone in a restaurant or go out alone. Hannaman is compared to the characters in the television show SATC, because she, along with the four women on the show “are part of a major societal shift: single women, once treated as virtual outcasts, have moved to the center of our social and cultural life” (Edwards 2000). This development is also evident in the numerous chick lit publications and the expanding adaptations of chick lit novels as well7. Beyond the book sales, “chick-lit successes earn more in films and TV sitcoms for those who concoct just the right blend of naughtiness and niceness” (Laken 2004). One of
Recent adaptations of chick lit bestsellers are The Devil Wears Prada (2006), In Her Shoes (2005), the forthcoming The Nanny Diaries (2007) to name just a few. And Candace Bushnell’s novel Lipstick Jungle (2005) is being developed for TV, and is supposed to air in the fall of 2007.
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the most successful adaptations, so far, is the television show SATC. The social shift has turned fictional single women into TV’s It Girl. It is not just the popular show SATC, but over the years we have seen television series like Ally McBeal (1997-2002), Judging Amy (1999-2005), Providence (1999-2002), Desperate Housewives (2004- ) and so on. In other words, popular literature and the media began to affirm single life and the single woman has come into her own.
Edwards claims that if we go back, not long ago a single woman would live a temporary existence. She would live in a rented apartment, maybe share it with a girlfriend or two, and she would have a job, which she could easily abandon. A more adult life with a house, a car, travel, children only came with a husband (Edwards 2000). These days are gone. Edwards refers to a report which found that “nearly 60% of single women own their own home, buying them faster than single men; that single women fuel the home-renovating market; and that unmarried women are giving a big boost to the travel industry, making up half the adventure travelers and 2 out of 5 business travelers” (ibid). Sales people are trained to aim their pitches at women, travel agencies are offering women-only adventures and a hard ware store has changed its slogan from “Home of the Helpful Hardware Man” to “Home of the Helpful Hardware Folks” (ibid). What is more, hardware stores are now offering seminars to women about how to take care of handy jobs at home. Women’s economic advances make it possible for them to remain single, and still support themselves and a possible child. What is more, the same report labeled single women as “the yuppies of this decade, the blockbuster consumer group whose tastes will matter most to retailers and dictate our trends” (ibid). According to Edwards, women are more “confident, more self-sufficient and more choosy than ever [and] women no longer see marriage as a matter of survival and acceptance. They feel free to start and end relationships” (ibid). Another important shift, and a consequence of women’s choice not to get married, or leave a marriage because it is not working out, is the rise in solo pregnancies, use of sperm donors or adoption. Edwards points out that “[w]hile the birthrate has fallen among teenagers, it has climbed 15 % among unmarried thirtysomethings since 1990” (ibid). The fact that women are choosing to become single parents also emphasizes that the shift goes beyond the man-woman relationship issue, and points to a more existentialist agenda.
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All this goes to illustrate, that women are empowered to control their own destinies like never before. This on the other hand does not mean that their lives are without fear or anxiety about the future. The new situation of the single woman is subject to just as many speculations as the state of marriage, and consequently leads the way for new kinds of problems. These include among others knowing how the perfect relationship is supposed to be in the 21st century and whether or not men are able and willing to adapt to the cultural shift, which would be the second requirement for the perfect relationship.
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Social Relations: The Role of Friendship Networks in Contemporary Society As I have argued previously in this thesis, friendship networks have become an important factor in terms of community building, and this theme is also a large part of chick lit novels. Trimberger (2005) takes a sociological approach to friendship, defining the current condition like this: Rather than seeing a contemporary community as based on a set of shared values among people who live near each other and experience face-to-face interaction on a regular basis, sociologists now emphasize a personal community as being defined by social networks that provide companionship, social support, a sense of belonging, and trust. Although a personal community usually does not have a cohesive moral or ideological purpose, it is built on bonds of belonging and care (…) (Trimberger 2005: 230).
In order to get a good understanding of the role of friendships in contemporary society, it is important to understand the concept of friendship. If we look back at our popular culture over the past decades, we will see a change in for example television shows. In the 1980s there was a focus on family life. Numerous television shows like The Cosby Show, Who’s the Boss, Full House, Family Ties, Growing Pains, etc. displayed the importance of family. Then in the 1990s the focus shifted and shows like Beverly Hills 90210 (in part because the focus of the Wash family shifted to the aspect of good and lasting friends), Melrose Place, Friends, Ally McBeal, SATC, etc. put the focus on the importance of friendship. They all emphasize the importance of friendship networks in providing intimacy and stability for women whether or not they are in their twenties, thirties or forties. In other words, single women find support in their friends who provide companionship and are there in times of trouble. This shift is a very important one, because it illustrates that the role of friendship has become more important in everyday life over this past decade.
Friendships can be categorized as complex social relationships. In other words, “friendship is a term used to denote co-operative and supportive behaviour between two or more social entities” (Wikipedia 2007 - friendship). Consequently, the term “connotes a relationship which involves mutual knowledge, esteem, and affection. Friends will welcome each other's company and exhibit loyalty towards each other” (ibid). Friends will usually share similar tastes in different things or activities; they will engage in helping behavior such as giving advice, listening, and sharing hardships. - 23 -
Friendships can be viewed as active social formulations as is the case in Anita Harris’ book Young Femininity: Girlhood, Power and Social Change (2005). Harris claims that “[g]rowing up as a girl has traditionally been defined first and foremost via the ability to create close and lasting personal relationships” (Harris 2005: 108). In other words, “[s]uccesful development for a girl has meant increasing social skills in close friendships with other girls, followed by a long-term romantic heterosexual relationship which culminates in the formation of a family” (Harris 2005: 109). According to Harris, girls’ friendships were theorized as a kind of prelude to heterosexual relationships in early literature; hence they were sometimes seen as less valuable. Therefore, young women were sometimes expected to drop their female friends when they started dating boys, and if they did not drop their female friends they should at least consider them as secondary. This view has been challenged, because research has shown that girls highly value their friendships and that they also try to maintain them at all costs. Furthermore, if women wait until they are in their mid thirties to get married, their friends inevitable become more important than ever before, because they spend much more time with them. In other words, friends tend to take on the role of one’s family, something Whelehan (2002) addresses in relation to BJ and her friends. Whelehan argues that “the functional “family” which Bridget and her friends forge suggests the possibility of a new set of relations at least as reliable as those of blood ties” (Whelehan 2002: 30). This relationship between women and their friends is something I will return to shortly.
Friendships have also been seen as “a part of the web of social practices that mediate and constitute gender identities” (Harris 2005: 109). Harris continues her argument that girls’ friendships are “a powerful cultural force, representing sites of collective meaning-making, and a necessary requirement in the multilayered process of making gendered identities” (Harris 2005: 111). Furthermore, Doyle (2002) argues that our experience of friendship alters with age. Therefore, it can be argued that at the age of 12 and onwards, “individual friendship is part of a larger network of relationships – and that friends are linked with others in ‘personal communities’. In these personal communities friendships function among other things as support, as Pahl (2000) argues: Dependence and independence are perceived as having a dialectical relationship with each other. Friends rely on each other both for support and a sense of personal identity, but also accept that each needs the
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space to develop relationships with others. There follows a growth in maturity through such experiences (Pahl 2000: 101).
Pahl also argues that friendship is becoming an increasingly important ‘social glue’ (Pahl 2000: 1). He says that many societies are held together by different bonds than was the case three centuries ago. According to Pahl, it seems likely that two quite distinct processes are taking place at the same time. On the one hand, friends may be taking over various social tasks, duties and functions from family and kin, simply out of practical necessity… The second process is the changing meaning of friendship. Our ideas of what it means to be a good friend, a close friend, a really close friend or a best friend are changing. Our expectations and aspirations are growing and we are even prepared to judge the quality of our relationships with kin on the basis of some higher ideal of whether we can be closer to them as friends (Pahl 2000: 8).
Furthermore, Pahl states that there is evidence which suggests that social support in the form of social contact and group membership has an impact on our ability to handle difficult situations in our lives, our feeling of happiness etc. “‘It is not friendship per se that is important, but rather the trust, security, feelings of self-esteem and feelings of being loved for one’s own sake that flow from it’. Knowing that ‘significant others’ like us, respect us and can provide practical support is likely to make for a happier life” (Pahl 2000: 148). In other words, through friendship we gain practical and emotional support, support that functions as an important contribution to our personal identities. In addition to this, young women’s struggle towards individuality is interesting, especially when you look at female friendships from a cultural point of view. According to Harris, young women’s struggle towards individuality has “demonstrated itself in various ways: postponing and/ or rejecting marriage and having children, leading single lives in unprecedented numbers, and heavy investments in education and professional careers, as well as increasing involvement in public spheres such as politics and the media” (Harris 2005: 111). These individualizing processes are apparent in girl’s friendships and social relationships. Harris claims that for young single women in early adulthood, friendships with other women function as a way for them to feel connected to other people and still be relatively independent.
The ‘Adopted Family’ Concept As Trimberger (2005) argues, “[b]uilding a friendship network takes time and necessitates some stability in one’s life, but even singles in their twenties and thirties recognize the importance of a network of friends” (Trimberger 2005: 247). The fact that contemporary
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single women can feel relatively independent for a longer period of time, without ‘family obligations’ holding them back, makes for stronger relationships with their friends. As I have argued previously, the importance of friendship has taken on an even more visible role in the past decade. One could argue that this new role of friendships might have something to do with the kind of lives people live now, as opposed to a decade ago. A possible answer could be the fact that, “[a] growing number of Western young women (and men) are choosing to lead single life-styles well into their late twenties and early thirties, and a large proportion of them never marry” (Harris 2005: 111). In this situation, the role of friendships takes on a new meaning as one’s ‘adopted families’ or ‘urban tribe’ (Trimberger 2005).
As I have argued previously, this is reflected in the many popular TV series, the most obvious is of course Friends (1994-2004). These TV series portray groups of mainly single young adults, who spend most of their spare time with their friends, live together as well as fall in and out of love with each other. Trimberger elucidates on what kind of support friends can give, “friends also helped each other move furniture, paint apartments, and gather money to help somebody in financial need. They encourage each other to take personal risks to meet their individual goals” (Trimberger 2005: 247). The fact that TV shows portray the role of friends as massively as is the case, could point to the fact that it is very much part of our everyday life, hence a very important factor for our well-being. Additionally, contemporary women’s fiction is also build up around the importance of friendships networks between women. As Harris argues, “[f]or many girls and young women, networks of friends have a more central role in their lives than ever before” (Harris 2005: 112). Networks of friends have a more central role than the family of blood ties for the modern day men and women. Furthermore, one could also argue that “close friends provide the understanding and solace to help her make sense of her world while her family symbolizes the pull of tradition where being single is definitely seen as a period of transformation between adolescence and marriage” (Whelehan 2002: 37). Additionally, friends become an alternative ‘family’, “in that they provide the customs and rituals and emotional nurturance” (Whelehan 2002: 37), as the blood family would normally do if one lived with them.
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However, it is questionable whether or not the large networks of friends that were formed by single people in their twenties and thirties will last. Journalist Ethan Watters (quoted in Trimberger (2005)) does not believe that these large networks of friends will last after the singles marry by their late thirties. The same claim can be found by writer Sasha Cagen, who emphasizes the positive aspects of single life, however, she is not convinced that these friendships will last. She argues that friendship can be seen as a phenomenon “that will be subordinated to “marriages, parenthood, career and myriad responsibilities” as people age” (quoted in Trimberger 2005: 248). Cagen claims that it becomes weird to put friendship at the center of one’s life when one reaches middle life. Trimberger, on the other hand, claims that her research has shown that both Watters and Cagen’s views are too shortsighted. Trimberger says: The friendship networks that young people build in their twenties and thirties may not last a lifetime, but even so, they provide a model and help hone the skills needed to re-create friendship networks in one’s forties, fifties, and beyond. A young person who has enjoyed a rich communal life will be less afraid to remain single, and if she does couple, she will be less likely to retreat to an isolated nuclear family and cut off her single friends (Trimberger 2005: 248).
According to psychologist Lillian Rubin (quoted in Trimberger 2005), the family terminology (‘close friends were like family’, ‘family of friends’, ‘adopted family’, etc.) is used because “[t]he idea of kin is so deeply and powerfully rooted within us that it is the most common metaphor for describing closeness” (Trimberger 2005: 249). Rubin argues that the reason why we choose to use family terminology in connection with friends is because “friendship has no explicit obligations of care or firm expectations of permanence in our culture” (ibid). So by using this terminology it gives friendship networks more legitimacy, according to Rubin.
Moreover, Trimberger argues that although friendship networks are not substitutes for family, “they may be increasingly necessary to sustain not just single life but also family life” (Trimberger 2005: 250). Furthermore, she contends that a growing body of research demonstrates that “the crucial difference between functional and dysfunctional families lies not in the form of the family but in the quality of support networks outside the family, including the presence of non-kin in those networks” (Trimberger 2005: 251). Therefore, as I have argued previously, friendship networks are important, also to married people,
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because more often than before, a lot of people no longer live close to their parents or their siblings.
These speculations will be important in my analysis of contemporary womenâ€™s fiction, because as I have pointed out in this section, friends seem to have become the new family. At least to the extent that people rely more on their friends nowadays, coming to them for support and advice on things that are happening to them in their everyday life. One explanation as to why this development has taken place could have something to do with peopleâ€™s approach to life. The current generation of young men and women, have grown up with a lot more possibilities, and attached to these possibilities are a lot of choices. Their parents did not have as many possibilities as young people do today. Therefore, it is easier to ask a friend for advice rather than your parents, because your friends are going through the same things you are. Whereas, if you ask your parents, they might not be able to imagine the kind of situation you are in, because they have never been used to the level of choices the younger generation is faced with today.
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Social Belonging & Creation of Identity: A Historical Overview When dealing with the heroines in chick lit novels, it is important to understand the problems that these women might be going through at a certain period of their lives. In the following, I will give a few examples of some of these problems and argue why they can all be traced back to the question of identity creation. Firstly, I will give a brief summary of how identity or the self has been treated through time in order to get an idea of the changes it has undergone. In order to understand the heroines – postmodern women – it is essential to look at the past. It will become apparent throughout this part of the thesis what kind of problems they are dealing with nowadays, problems that were not an issue for women earlier on.
In order to fully understand the concept of identity, I believe that it is important to look at it from a historical point of view. For the concept of identity has undergone a rather interesting development through time. Gripsrud (2002) argues that our identity is “a patchwork of identities, a complicated set of similarities and differences in relation to other people” (Gripsrud 2002: 7). He also suggests that we distinguish between two types of identity, namely social or collective identity and personal identity. He stresses that though the two are closely tied to each other they are not necessarily completely identical. According to Gripsrud, our social identity is at the outset, the identity we get by way of other people’s perception of us and the collective contexts we are part of: we come from a particular city in a particular country, we are males or females of a certain age, we have parents with such and such jobs, we have this or that education and a set of hobbies or cultural preferences that lead us to play in a rock band or join the local football team (Gripsrud 2002: 7).
In other words, other people’s perceptions of all of these features will become part of our own perception of ourselves, of course some more than others. These perceptions will become part of our self-image, i.e. our identity.
Our personal identity on the other hand, is what we might suggest as an answer when we ask ourselves ‘Who am I?’ In order to answer this question we ask questions like; what is unique about me, what distinguishes me from other people? As Gripsrud stresses “[the] greater part of our identity has not been chosen by us. One does not, as we all know,
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choose either one’s parents or, consequently, one’s social-class background, one’s race, gender or mother tongue” (Gripsrud 2002: 9). Moreover, as Gripsrud points out, many of the most important choices we do make, such as higher education, are conditioned by our backgrounds, which thus “also influence our educationally related attitudes, lifestyles and so on” (ibid). Gripsrud concludes that the end result has quite a high degree of consistency in our social and personal identities.
However, Gripsrud also points out that these days we consciously choose certain elements of our identity. This is done more freely than was the case in the past (traditional culture), which will be elaborated in the following paragraphs. This kind of freedom to choose is not something that has developed only recently however, it was a central element of modern culture and even more so in postmodern culture. As I have mentioned before, it is important to understand the development from traditional culture to postmodern culture, therefore, I will briefly describe each of them, though my main focus will be on postmodern culture because it is the most interesting one in relation to my analysis of chick lit novels and contemporary culture as well.
The Traditional, the Modern and the Postmodern Self John R. Gibbins and Reimer (1999) describe the development from a traditional self, through a modern self, and finally to a postmodern self. Furthermore, Douglas Kellner (1995) claims that according to anthropological and sociological folklore one’s identity was fixed, solid and stable in traditional societies. In traditional culture “a person was at birth, already destined to end up in a certain position and pursuing a certain function in the world” (Gripsrud 2002: 9). The traditional self, being located firmly in local structures provided by the village or town, had few sources of socialization and means of communication. Kellner states that “[o]ne was born and died as a member of one’s clan, of fixed kinship system, and of one’s tribe or group with one’s life trajectory fixed in advance” (Kellner 1995: 231). Identity was unproblematic and not subjected to reflection or discussion and due to absent “means of communication from the outside world, as pictures, books and reading skills were rare, the production of alternative narratives of self was minimal” (Gibbins 1999: 55).
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In the modern world, socialization is still channeled by the family, community and church. However, identity becomes more “mobile, multiple, personal, self-reflexive, and subjected to change and innovation” (Kellner 1995: 231). So even though identity is still relatively fixed and limited, it still becomes possible to engage in reflection on available social roles and possibilities, and maybe even move a little away from tradition. Kellner elucidates on the history of identity by referring to theorists of identity from Hegel through G.H. Mead, who, according to Kellner, characterized personal identity in terms of “mutual recognition, as if one’s identity depended on recognition from others combined with self-validation of this recognition” (Kellner 1995: 231). In modernity the boundaries of possible identities or new identities are continually expanding. The modern self is pictured as more materialistic, utilitarian and self-directed. The self is aware of the constructed nature of identity and furthermore that one can change and transform one’s identity if one wants to. Therefore, the modern self is faced with new problems such as anxiety. According to Kellner, “[a]nxiety also becomes a constituent experience for the modern self. For one is never certain that one has made the right choice, that one has chosen one’s ‘true’ identity, or even constituted an identity at all” (Kellner 1995: 232). Furthermore, one’s identity might become out of date, superfluous and that might lead to conditions of alienation and one might not feel at home in the world. On the other hand, one’s identity may “crystallize and harden such that ennui and boredom may ensue. One is tired of one’s life, of who one has become. One is trapped in a web of social roles, expectations, and relations. There appears to be no exit and no possibility of change” (Kellner 1995: 232). Because of these changes, identity becomes problematic in modernity, but as Kellner asserts “only in a society anxious about identity could the problems of personal identity, or self-identity, or identity crisis, arise and be subject to worry and debate” (ibid). In short, in modernity, “the problem of identity consisted in how we constitute, perceive, interpret and present ourself to ourselves and others” (Kellner 1995: 233).
Kellner points out that identity is looked upon from different angles according to which belief one holds. Firstly, one can look at identity as “a discovery and affirmation of an innate essence which determines what I am”; secondly, identity can be seen as “a construction and a creation from available social roles and material” (Kellner 1995: 233). According to Kellner, “contemporary postmodern thought has by and large rejected the
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essentialist and rationalist notion of identity and builds on the constructivist notion which it in turn problematizes” (ibid). The postmodern self is less securely located than its predecessors. Identity becomes more and more unstable and fragile. Some discourses about postmodernity problematize the very notion of identity by claiming that it is a myth and an illusion. These claims can be found in for example modern theorists such as those of the Frankfurt School and works of Jean Baudrillard as well as other postmodern theorists. They claim that “the autonomous, self-constituting subject that was the achievement of modern individuals, of a culture of individualism, is fragmenting and disappearing, due to social processes which produce the levelling of individuality in a rationalized, bureaucratized and consumerized mass society and media culture” (ibid).
Gibbins and Reimer (1999) argue that the postmodern self can be viewed in terms of its expressive features. According to them, "[t]he production, reproduction and consumption of self-narratives has blossomed in a way and to an extent that was previously unimaginable" (Gibbins 1999: 57). In other words, they argue that “more and more people in Western Europe may be characterized as expressivists, that is, as having a postmodern self” (Gibbins 1999: 58). In short, their characterization of expressivism is “the desire and capacity to actualize self-constructions or –identities” (ibid). Furthermore, Gibbins and Reimer argue that expressivists are people “who feel confident about shaping their own identity. They exhibit a high regard for their own freedom; a capacity and power to realize their projects of self-creation” (Gibbins 1999: 66). Moreover, Gibbins and Reimer argue that such people will be “especially comfortable in cosmopolitan surroundings where their special skills and attributes can be fully expressed” (ibid). However, Gibbins and Reimer also point out that not everyone is likely to become an expressivist. One needs to have a high regard for one’s own capacity, and this regard is typical for people who feel that their life is moving in the right direction both on a professional level and a social level. Therefore, “[a] stimulating job, with opportunities for both self-realization and selfexpression, as well as supportive friends, are important components” (ibid). Gibbins and Reimer conclude that nearest to their conception is that of Anthony Giddens’, therefore I will develop this theoretical issue even further by also bringing his notions about selfidentity into this part of the thesis.
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Anthony Giddens and the Postmodern Self Anthony Giddens (1991) has put forward theories about self-identity in contemporary society. “Identity has become, he suggests, a ‘project of the self’: something we are all knowingly engaged in, endlessly working to refine our sense of who we are” (Bell & Hollows 2005: 5). His main argument is that in the post-traditional order, self-identity is no longer static nor is it inherited. In other words, “[t]he self is not a passive entity, determined by external influences” (Giddens 1991: 2). According to Gauntlett, Giddens’ understanding of self identity becomes a “reflexive project – an endeavour we constantly work and reflect on. We create, maintain and revise a set of biographical narratives – the story of who we are, and how we came to be where we are now” (Gauntlett 2004: 99). Hence, “[t]he reflexive project of the self (…) takes place in the context of multiple choice as filtered through abstract systems” (Giddens 1991: 5).
According to Giddens, “Self-identity (…) is not something that is just given, as a result of the continuities of the individual’s action system, but something that has to be routinely created and sustained in the reflexive activities of the individual” (Giddens 1991: 52). In other words, “[a] person’s identity is not to be found in behaviour, nor – important though this is – in the reactions of others, but in the capacity to keep a particular narrative going” (Giddens 1991: 54). Gauntlett summarizes Giddens’ notions about the self like this: “The self is not something we are born with, and it is not fixed. Instead the self is reflexively made – thoughtfully constructed by the individual. We all choose a lifestyle (even if we wouldn’t call it one)” (Gauntlett 2004: 98).
Giddens also argue that choice is an important factor, and that we are compelled “to make significant choices throughout [our] lives, from everyday questions about clothing, appearance and leisure to high-impact decisions about relationships, beliefs and occupations” (Gauntlett 2004: 96). Furthermore, because self-identity is no longer static, like in earlier societies, where individuals were provided with clearly defined roles, we, in post-traditional societies, have to work out our roles for ourselves. Giddens elucidates, “What to do? How to act? Who to be? These are focal questions for everyone living in circumstances of late modernity – and ones which on some level or another, all of us answer, either discursively or through day-to-day social behaviours” (Giddens 1991: 70).
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Moreover, he also argues that the individual is confronted with a complex diversity of choices and the individual is on its own about which options to select. There is no predetermined answer.
Giddens also addresses the issue of ‘lifestyle’. He defines ‘lifestyle’ as “a more or less integrated set of practices which an individual embraces, not only because such practices fulfil utilitarian needs, but because they give material form to a particular narrative of selfidentity” (Giddens 1991: 81). Giddens says: “[m]odernity opens up the project of the self, but under conditions strongly influenced by the standardising effects of commodity capitalism” (Giddens 1991: 196). Moreover, Giddens says that “lifestyles are routinised practices, the routines incorporated into habits of dress, eating, models of acting and favoured milieux for encountering others; but the routines followed are reflexively open to change in the light of the mobile nature of self-identity” (Giddens 1991: 81). For example, the things we can buy to ‘express’ ourselves inevitably have an impact upon the project of the self. Giddens explains, “[i]n all cultures, dress is vastly more than simply a means of bodily protection: it is, manifestly, a means of symbolic display, a way of giving external form to narratives of self-identity” (Giddens 1991: 62). In other words, consumerism is one of the clearest ways in which we develop and project a lifestyle. Therefore, everyone in modern society has to choose a lifestyle, because the consumer society is a society in which ‘we have no choice but to choose’ says Giddens. Furthermore, Giddens reinforces that the more “post-traditional the setting in which an individual moves, the more lifestyle concerns the very core of self-identity, its making and remaking” (Giddens 1991: 81). This is especially interesting in relation to chick lit novels, because they are almost always set in urban settings, a point I will return to later on in this thesis.
To sum up, both modern and postmodern identities contain an awareness that identity is chosen and constructed, though, in contemporary society, it may be more ‘natural’ to change identities, to switch with the changing winds of fashion. “In the consumer and media societies that emerged after World War II, identity has been increasingly linked to style, to producing an image, to how one looks” (Kellner 1995: 232). In order to expand this relationship between fashion and self-identity, I will turn to Malcolm Barnard, and his theories about Fashion as Communication.
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Social Communication: Fashion as Communication & Identity Markers Malcolm Barnard (2004) argues that on an everyday basis we make decisions about the social status of the people we meet. We do this based on what they are wearing. Barnard uses Karl Marx’s term ‘social hieroglyphics’ when he describes the way we make these decisions. He argues that “we treat their clothes as ‘social hieroglyphics’ (…) which conceal, even as they communicate, the social position of the wearer” (Barnard 2004: 9). Barnard elaborates this when he declares that “fashion and clothing may be the most significant ways in which social relations between people are constructed, experienced and understood” (ibid). In his account of fashion as communication, he points out the connection between fashion, communication and culture, even though, to some people, it might sound like an obvious connection to make. Barnard sets out to examine what sort of statements clothes make, and also what kinds of communications are involved.
Fred Davis (1992) elaborates on the sociological approach to fashion and clothing. He states that “we know that through clothing people communicate some things about their persons, and at the collective level this results typically in locating them symbolically in some structured universe of status claims and life-style attachments” (Davis 1992: 4). Fashion and clothing are forms of nonverbal communication in that they do not use spoken or written words. The meanings generated by clothes are cultural, according to Davis. The meaning of clothes is cultural in the same sense that “everything about which common understandings can be presumed to exist (the food we eat, the music we listen to, our furniture, health beliefs, in sum, the totality of our symbolic universe) is cultural” (Davis 1992: 13). It is not as simple as to say that communication is about sending messages, and it is important to be aware of that when we want to understand fashion and clothing as communication.
Barnard summarizes two different schools, as ways of understanding communication. The first school may be referred to as the ‘process’ school, and the second as the ‘semiotic’ or ‘structuralist’ school. I will only focus on the second school, because it goes well with the other theories I have chosen to use in this thesis. According to Fiske (1990) “semiotics (…) defines social interaction as that which constitutes the individual as a member of a
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particular culture or society” (Fiske 1990: 2-3). That is, communication makes an individual into a member of a community; “communication as ‘social interaction through messages’ constitutes an individual as a member of a group” (Barnard 2004: 31). According to Fiske, the semiotic model is concerned with “how messages, or texts, interact with people in order to produce meanings; that is, it is concerned with the role of texts in our culture” (Fiske 1990: 2). Barnard uses Douglas and Isherwood in order to describe that man needs goods for communicating with others, but also for making sense of what is going on around him. Douglas and Isherwood argue that “[the] two needs are but one, for communication can only be formed in a structured system of meanings” (Douglas & Isherwood quoted in Barnard 2004: 32). According to Barnard, they imply that fashion and clothing may be used to make sense of the world, the things and people in it, in other words that they are communicative phenomena. However, they also imply that the structured system of meanings – a culture – enables individuals to construct an identity by means of communication.
In order to develop the idea of meaning in relation to fashion and clothing, Barnard briefly describes the semiological account as being the most productive, when analysing the meanings of fashion and clothing. I will just touch upon two key terms here, namely denotation and connotation. According to M.H. Abrams, “denotation of a word is its primary signification or reference; its connotation is the range of secondary or associated significations and feelings which it commonly suggests or implies” (Abrams 1999: 46). The denotation is factual, and the meaning is not likely to differ significantly from person to person. Or as Barnard puts it, “the denotational meaning of words and images is not likely to differ significantly between people who are members of the same culture or who use the same language” (Barnard 2004: 85). Connotation, on the other hand, may be described as “the things that the word or the image makes a person think or feel, or as the associations that a word or an image has for someone” (ibid). Unlike the denotational meaning, the connotational meaning will have different associations, or connotations, for different people, because people are different. As I have mentioned earlier in the thesis, clothes can be seen as markers of identity, and as I have pointed out in the beginning of this section, clothes are used to determine the social status of the people we meet and see. In order to clarify this, I will address two very specific ways of communicating in relation
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to fashion, namely, how one can choose to dress in order to radiate power and how one can dress in designer clothes in order to radiate status, awareness and some would argue, sense of fashion.
Dress for Success In her contribution to the book Buy this Book (1997), Joanne Entwistle addresses the issue of how women dress. In the article “‘Power dressing’ and the construction of the career woman” she points to a dress manual, Women: Dress for Success, by John T. Molloy, wherein he claims that most women ‘dress for failure’, because they “either let fashion dictate their choice of clothes, or they see themselves as sex objects, or they dress according to their socio-economic background” (Entwistle 1997: 311). According to Molloy, all three ways of dressing prevent women from gaining power in the business world. In order to succeed in a man’s world of work, the women have to “let science help them choose their clothes” (ibid). This way of dressing, which emerged in the 1970s, has also been labeled ‘power dressing’, and it refers to a style of clothing which makes the wearer radiate authority and competence, and it is most noticeable in professional settings such as business, law and government. The style is dark and conservative and consists of tailored suits or skirts in black, grey, blue and navy colors. In other words, “‘power dressing’ did not set out to rock any boats, its main aim was to enable women to steer a steady course through male-dominated professions, and it therefore sought to work with existing codes of dress” (Entwistle 1997: 320).
Entwistle also argues that the development of ‘power dressing’ is important because it played an important part in making the professional career woman visible to the public. ‘Power dressing’ addressed a new kind of female worker; it did not address the cleaning lady or the manual worker, it addressed “a new breed of working women who emerged in the 1970s, the university-educated, professional middle-class career woman entering into career structures previously the preserve of men: law, politics, the City and so on” (Entwistle 1997: 314). According to Entwistle, this professional career woman “was someone aiming to ‘make it’ to positions of power often in previously male-dominated career structures” (Entwistle 1997: 312). The uniform becomes very important for the
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career woman, because it served as a “mode of self-presentation that enabled her to construct herself and be recognised as an executive or business career woman” (ibid).
Featherstone (2001) addresses this new way of thinking about the self with a comparison between self-help manuals from the nineteenth and the twentieth century. He argues that the manuals indicate the development of this new self, a self he has called ‘the performing self’ and which he defines as a self which “places greater emphasis upon appearance, display and the management of impressions” (Featherstone 2001: 187). His comparison shows that in the “former self-help manual the self is discussed in terms of values and virtues, thrift, temperance, self discipline and so on” (Entwistle 1997: 314). Whereas, in the twentieth century the emphasis is on “how one appears, how to look and be ‘magnetic’ and charm others” (ibid). This means that the career woman has to calculate and be cunning in her self-presentation in order for her to produce an image, which radiates her commitment to this kind of life, as well as the lifestyle of a business woman. And the best way to radiate commitment is to wear a ‘power suit’, because it becomes a “more or less reliable signal that a woman was taking her job seriously and was interested in going further” (Entwistle 1997: 319). Furthermore, the right clothing is very important for the career woman because it does “not simply transmit information about the company or corporation she works for: her appearance is important because it tells us something about her, about her professionalism, her confidence, her self-esteem, her ability to do her job” (Entwistle 1997: 320). This way of communicating one’s power, and one’s level of success can also be found in other places than the business world. In contemporary culture we have gotten used to a wide variety of consumer goods, designer clothing and advertising of these brands everywhere we go. Therefore, they have become increasingly important in the way we choose to communicate our self-identity to others. The importance of designer clothing or how people dress for acknowledgement is the focus of my next section.
Dress for Acknowledgement As I have argued in the part about postmodern identity, our lives are all about choice. Furthermore, both modern and postmodern identities contain an awareness that identity is chosen and constructed. Bell & Hollows (2005) claim that “individuals have increasing freedom to construct lifestyles through stylized consumer goods” (Bell & Hollows 2005:
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5), or one could argue that contemporary consumer culture encourages us to play with lifestyles through the different goods we buy.
Therefore, the role of shopping in our everyday life is important, because consumption has become an important way for us to express our self-identity to others. Or as one character argues in the movie The Devil Wears Prada (2006), “Fashion is not about utility. An accessory is merely a piece of iconography used to express individual identity” (TDWP 2006: 39:18). In other words, we are purchasing value as the sociology professor, Sharon Zukin (2005) argues, Shopping is our means of pursuing value. It has become an arena of struggle, in recent years, precisely because it is one of the few means we have left of creating value. Deprived as we are of direct contact with nature or with goods ourselves, shopping gives us a way to satisfy our drive for beauty, to get what we think is “the best,” and to hone our ability to make judgments, shape time, and use money. We shop because we long for value-for a virtuous ideal of value that we no longer get from religion, work, or politics” (Zukin 2005: 7-8).
Zukin elucidates that since the nineties shopping has become our principal strategy for creating value. Furthermore, she argues that “with the shift of the economy toward consumption, and our weaker attachment to traditional art forms, religions, and politics, shopping has come to define who we, as individuals, are and what we, as a society, want to become” (Zukin 2005: 8). In other words, Zukin points out that shopping can be seen as “one of those disciplines of the body by which we find our places in society” (Zukin 2005: 29).
This way of finding one’s way in society, is very apparent in one of the best known chick lit series, the Shopaholic series, by Sophie Kinsella. The Shopaholic novels deal with different situations in which the female heroine, Becky Bloomwood, tries to express her identity, or her aspirational identity, by shopping for designer goods. Becky’s “participation in consumer culture, rather than staying attractive for a man, provides a way to remain exciting and young, regardless of marital status or other life changes. It’s a curious postfeminist existence, one in which there are always new consumer markets to exploit, new consumer choices to explore” (Scanlon 2005). In other words, shopping provides Becky with a form of cultural capital, because as Scanlon argues, “[f]or a contemporary woman, identity may come less from the man whose arm she drapes than from the designer whose shoes she dons” (Scanlon 2005).
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As a result, we make decisions about the people we meet, based on ‘social hieroglyphics’, and as Zukin explains, “[O]nce we have developed a fine eye for difference among goods, we can make distinctions among the people who use them” (Zukin 2005: 41). As I have argued previously these social hieroglyphics are structured into a hierarchy system, something the French theorist Jean Baudrillard has labeled a system of sign values. Baudrillard argues that commodities are structured into a system of sign values governed by rules, codes and social logic. Baudrillard’s notion of sign value can be explained in relation to Karl Marx’s notion of ‘use value’ and ‘exchange value’ – use value being defined by the use and enjoyment of a commodity in everyday life, and exchange value as defined by its worth in the marketplace. According to Madan Sarup (1996), Baudrillard’s notions of sign values are “socially-constructed prestige values which are appropriated and displayed in consumption. Commodities are not the locus of the satisfaction of needs, as classical economy claims, but confer social meaning and prestige, which serve as indices of social standing in the consumer society” (Sarup 1996: 108). In other words, this kind of theory implies that certain objects or brands are chosen over others because of their sign value. “Consumer societies are constituted by hierarchies of sign values in which one’s social standing and prestige are determined by where one stands within the semiological system of consumption and sign values” (ibid). Consumption is, as I have just argued, a very important factor in our everyday life, and slogans such as ‘I shop therefore I am’ and ‘Because I’m worth it’ have become significant terms used to describe our contemporary society. Therefore, the importance of looking good, and shopping, as well as ‘prestige shopping’ is very much a part of our contemporary culture, and something that we work and reflect on, on a day to day basis in order to project the right signs of status to the people we meet. Additionally, the chick lit heroines are faced with the same decisions about shopping. Partly because they are trying to fit in and figure out who they are. I will return to this in my analysis of how social communication is depicted in chick lit novels.
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Chick Culture as Social Context In conclusion to my theoretical perspectives section, I will sum up the most important features of what I have chosen to label ‘chick culture’. In other words, it is my argument that the social aspects I have discussed in the previous section can all be characterized as having an essential role in our contemporary culture, and thus an essential role in contemporary chick culture as well.
If I should highlight one point, it would be the lifestyle choices people are faced with on an everyday basis. As Gibbins and Reimer argue, “for people living in postmodernity, that task of making decisions concerning what to do with one’s life has become a more crucial part of everyday existence than it was for people living in other kinds of societies” (Gibbins 1999: 72). First of all, this has to do with the fact that now, more than ever, people have to take responsibility for their choices, and they have to take responsibility for what they want to do in life. As Gibbins and Reimer point out, traditional bonds have loosened, and one is not required to follow in the footsteps of one’s parents. Therefore, the whole world is full of possibilities, and without a given path to follow “people have to make choices between a number of different alternatives without having the security of knowing what any of them will lead to” (ibid). Furthermore, as they argue, “lifestyle decisions to an increasing extent have become tasks that have to be carried out continuously during one’s lifetime. This also makes it possible to change one’s chosen lifestyle, if one gets tired of it. This opportunity can be both liberating and traumatic, because as Gibbins and Reimer say: “[t]he security that elder generations felt has disappeared and not everyone is able to fulfil his or her dreams – partly due to the fact that not all individuals are given equal opportunities to do so” (Gibbins 1999: 73).
This urge to fulfil your dreams has become easier for women over the years. Today’s women have achieved freedom and independence in several areas of life. They have gained power, or at least increased power, within economic, political and personal spheres. They now have the opportunity to get an education, which enables them to become more independent. Due to the fact that they are able to get a good education, and because of that they are able to get a well-paid job, they no longer need a man to support them financially. Today’s women do not have to marry a man in order to take care of themselves, they can
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do that perfectly well on their own. Therefore, women are not afraid to leave a man if they feel that their relationship is not working out. In earlier societies, a woman was ‘forced’ to stay in a relationship, both because it was not well-seen to leave one’s husband, but what is more, the woman was (in the majority of the cases) not able to support herself financially on her own. Today, as I have argued previously, women, especially in urban settings, are choosing to postpone marriage and children well into their thirties, whereas people in rural settings are more likely to get married in their early twenties. People also chose to live together for a longer period of time before getting married nowadays, something that was not the standard or an option earlier on.
The well-educated Western women are in more ways than one independent women, and as the pop group Destiny’s Child sang in their hit song ‘Independent Women’: “The shoes on my feet, I’ve bought it. The clothes I’m wearing, I’ve bought it. The rock I’m rockin’, ‘Cause I depend on me. If I wanted the watch you’re wearin’, I’ll buy it. The house I live in, I’ve bought it. The car I’m driving, I’ve bought it. I depend on me.” (Destiny’s Child lyric, 2001) Contemporary culture has many examples of how women have advanced. As I have mentioned, women are now able to buy their own car, their own house, their own vacations and so on. Contemporary women’s fiction has been able to capture the essence of what this new woman is going through. As Mabry (2006) contends, “[t]he success of these early texts, especially Bridget Jones’s Diary, revealed a market for stories about— and for—young, single women grappling with modern life and relationships” (Mabry 2006: 193). What is more, she argues that chick lit novels and films give contemporary women voice and alternative ways to live their lives which does not automatically include the ““happy-ever-after” marriage to Prince Charming” (Mabry 2006: 192). Mabry’s conclusion is that chick lit can be seen as a new and important voice for contemporary women, because they provide important new visions of “women’s voices, communities, and experiences as sexual beings” (Mabry 2006: 205). However, chick lit novels are not “perfect visions by any means, but they are a step beyond earlier “women’s texts,” which have been even more tightly bound by traditional ideas of what women should be and how women should behave” (Mabry 2006: 205).
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From these theoretical considerations about the social aspect of our contemporary culture, I will apply the main issues in an analysis of a chosen selection of contemporary womenâ€™s fiction, in order to get a thorough picture of how modern day women are portrayed. Furthermore, the findings in my analysis will enable me to discuss whether or not chick lit can be said to represent contemporary womenâ€™s lives, or if it falls under the category of escapist entertainment.
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An Analysis of Contemporary Women’s Fiction In this part of the thesis, I will examine three different chick lit novels in order to shed light on some of the important themes within the chick lit genre. Based on my theoretical perspectives, I will analyze the social aspects introduced in my theoretical section in order to investigate the chick lit phenomenon. I will look into the chicks in the novel Lipstick Jungle (2005) by Candace Bushnell, Jane Fallon’s debut novel Getting Rid of Matthew (2007), and Amanda Trimble’s debut novel Singletini (2006). First of all, I will give a short introduction to each of the novels and then go into a more detailed analysis of the social issues described in the novels. I will refer to the characters in the different novels by their first names and then clarify when necessary in parentheses which novel they appear in, e.g. Wendy (LJ), Helen (GRoM) and Victoria (S).
I have picked three different types of chick lit novels, in order to get a broader perspective on the genre, and also to show how chick lit has matured. The novel Singletini (2006) by Amanda Trimble, can be characterized as a ‘traditional’ chick lit novel. Trimble’s novel includes the urban location, in this case Chicago, the glam industries, dating, Mr. Wrongs, fashion and popular culture. The main character is in her mid twenties, and is trying to figure out what to do with her life after graduating from college. The novel fits the ‘Singlein-the-City’ category perfectly, but the parallel story about the friend getting married could also point in the direction of ‘Bride Lit’. Getting Rid of Matthew (2007) by Jane Fallon is set in London and can be characterized as a ‘Single-in-the-City’ meets ‘Hen Lit’, because the main character is in her late thirties. Fallon’s novel also contains elements from traditional chick lit, such as the glam industries and Mr. Rights and Mr. Wrongs. However, the main topic is infidelity and how women cope with that. Lastly, there is Lipstick Jungle (2005), which one could characterize as a mixture of ‘Gossip Lit’, ‘Hen Lit’ and ‘Single-inthe-City’ lit. The women in this novel are older and wiser than the women in the two previous novels, and therefore it makes for a different set of themes being debated within the novel, something I will now elaborate on in a more detailed description of each of the novels.
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Introduction to the Novels Lipstick Jungle (2005) – Candace Bushnell Lipstick Jungle is Candace Bushnell’s fourth novel, it was published in 2005, and a television production of the novel is expected in the fall of 2007. The novel weaves the stories of the three female characters, Victory Ford, Wendy Healy and Nico O’Neilly. Like Bushnell’s first novel Sex and the City, the novel describes the lives of a group of female friends living in New York. In Lipstick Jungle it is the lives of three career women living in the City; Victory is a fashion designer, Wendy is president of Parador Pictures, and Nico is editor-in-chief of the magazine Bonfire. In other words, they are all among the elite of New York’s entertainment world. Unlike the characters in SATC, these women are all in their early forties, and are all very successful in their professional lives, however, that does not stop them from trying to climb the corporate ladder even more. The fact that these characters are in their early forties means that compared to the characters of SATC, they have “matured, rethought their values and decided that these boil down to career success, measured in multiple zeros. They are not desperately seeking The One, nor do they spend much time discussing their sex lives” (Merritt 2006). The main themes in the novel are power, or more importantly how to gain even more power in a man’s world, friendship networks between women, how to fit in family life with a career, how to work on your marriage, how to find a partner in your forties, and so on.
The three women come across as very power-driven, and they are all struggling with the choices they made in life. In Nico’s case, she is struggling to accept the fact that her marriage might have become quite dull. Her sex life with her husband is not at all as exciting as it was when they first got married. In other words, Nico is trying to figure out whether or not she has made the right choice by marrying Seymour, and even more importantly, should she stay married to him. Additionally, Wendy is struggling to make sense of her marriage and to make time for her work as well, since she is the provider in the family. Victory, on the other hand, is trying to figure out whether or not she is still content with her single life, or if she in fact feels tempted to give a new relationship a chance of becoming more serious. What they all have in common is the fact that they, each in their own way and based on different circumstances, are all trying to get ahead in the
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business world as well as juggling their personal lives. In other words, whether they choose to remain single or get married, they are faced with problems regardless of their choice.
Singletini (2006) – Amanda Trimble Amanda Trimble is an award-winning American copywriter (Trimble http:// # 3) and Singletini (2006) is her debut novel. The novel is about the twentysomething girl, Victoria Hart, who wakes up one day realizing that her life is a mess. One of her best friends from college, Gwynn, has gotten engaged, something Victoria has a hard time grasping. Victoria gets fired from her job as a computer sales employee, and she finds herself directionless about her career, something none of her girlfriends seem to be. They are all well on their way to becoming successful within their career choices. The fact that everyone around her seems to know what to do with their lives frightens Victoria, because she is not ready to let go of partying, drinking and man-hunting – the things the girls agreed to do together after they graduated college. Along with her friends Kimmie, Gwynn and Julia, she made a pact that they were going to ‘live it up in Chicago and be singletinis together’. Being a singletini includes being “a curious type of female typically found living in urban settings; possessing an unusual, some would say deathly, fear of growing up and getting married” (Trimble 2006: i). As singletinis they were going to “have it all when we moved to Chicago. The jobs. The money. The men. The martini parties” (Trimble 2006: 13). Out of a job and with bills to pay, Victoria has to find a new job, and she joins the newest gimmick on the Chicago dating scene, the wingwoman concept. “They’re hip. They’re hot. And they are for hire. Meet Chicago bachelor’s new secret weapon” (Trimble 2006: ii). In other words, the job includes taking men out into social situations and helping them chat up women. Victoria has to keep her new job a secret, because her friends think that it might be some sort of prostitution. The job comes with a lot of opportunities to take care of one’s image, and therefore spend a lot of money on clothes and other appearance related items.
In other words, the main theme within the novel is how to accept the fact that your friends are growing up, maybe even faster than you are, and that life as you know it is going to change accordingly. For Victoria this change is something she is not ready to face, because she simply does not know what she wants to do with her life. In other words, she is
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directionless, and might be in the middle of a quarter-life crisis8. This quarterlife crisis can be seen as an explanation of the problems Victoria finds herself in during the course of the novel. However, the one incident that makes it clear that Victoria does feel lost is the wedding announcement by one of her close friends. According to the author, she started writing the novel because she found herself feeling lost too when her friends started getting engaged and later married, and she did not feel ready for this kind of commitment just yet. Trimble explains it like this, [T]he summer NINE of my good friends got engaged. (I freaked out!) Was I being left behind? Was I weird? Why wasn't I ready to race to the altar too? I was convinced something was wrong with me. After hours of discussing my dilemma with anyone who'd listen, I decided to write a book about it. I wanted to explore what it was like to be twentysomething and not looking for marriage...not yet anyway (Trimble, http:// # 3).
In other words, Trimble based some of the novel on feelings she had experienced in her mid twenties when her friends started to get engaged. Furthermore, the novel is about the feelings you experience when your friends have landed the great jobs, the perfect husband and the adorable child, and you are nowhere near any of it. The question that pops up is, ‘When will all of this happen to me?’ This is essential to the course of the novel and it is also essential in the next novel, Getting Rid of Matthew, which I will now turn to.
Getting Rid of Matthew (2007) – Jane Fallon Getting Rid Of Matthew (2007) is Jane Fallon’s first novel. She is an award-winning British television producer, and is behind This Life for BBC, Teachers for Channel 4, and 20 Things to Do Before You’re 30. Her debut novel deals with what happens when the Matthew of the novel’s title, Helen’s secret lover of the past four years, decides to leave his wife Sophie, and move into Helen’s apartment. Helen should be thrilled that he finally told his wife about the affair and made the decision to leave her, and finally be with Helen exclusively. The only trouble is that Helen is not sure she wants Matthew anymore, let alone him and his things in her small apartment. The novel is mostly about the things Helen does in order to get rid of Matthew again. Her plan A is to “Stop shaving your
According to Alexandra Robbins & Abby Wilner, a quarterlife crisis can occur in the interval between the transition from the academic world to the ‘real’ world, “an age group that can range from late adolescence to the mid-thirties but is usually most intense in twentysomethings” (Robbins & Wilner 2001: 2).
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armpits. And your bikini line. Buy incontinence pads and leave them lying around. Stop having sex with him” (http:// # 2). When her plan A does not work, she has to come up with a plan B. Her plan B includes bumping into Sophie, become her friend, get a fake name and identity in order not to get caught, kiss Matthew’s son from previous marriage etc. As undercover Eleanor Pitt, who works as a freelance PR, she befriends Matthew’s exwife, Sophie, and they end up becoming good friends.
As the novel unfolds, we witness how friendship between women can progress, and also how fast something can threaten it. The reader gets some clues as to how the mistress thinks, and also what kinds of feelings the wife is left with. It deals with the kind of feelings Helen is left with, when her only fellow sufferer, her single friend Rachel, suddenly finds herself in a serious relationship with a man. Helen has to come to terms with the fact that Rachel has got more important things in her life now, and that she cannot spend her evenings on the phone with Helen, discussing what Matthew did or did not do to Helen.
At thirty-nine Helen needs to figure out what to do with the rest of her life. She needs to figure out if she has made the right decisions in relation to her job at Global, a PR agency. She works as a PA, or as her friends say, a secretary. In the beginning of her relationship with Matthew, he encouraged her to have clients of her own, but soon he gets uncomfortable with the situation. Because they are having an affair, he feels that it is inappropriate to ask her to take dictation and other PA related assignments. The result is that due to their relationship Helen misses an opportunity of promotion. Helen needs to figure out whether or not she wants to be the mistress for the rest of her life, without being able to spend time with the man she loves every night of the week. She needs to deal with the fact that she is going to be left behind in the singles market, if she does not make up her mind about her relationship with Matthew. Over the years, all of her other friends have traded in their single life with serious relationships and marriage. The question is, will Helen make up her mind, and put an end to her single life existence, and stop wasting her time on another woman’s husband?
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From this short introduction of each of the three novels, I will now move on to a more detailed analysis of the main themes. As I have pointed out previously, the point of departure of my analysis is that of a social one. Therefore, I will examine each of the novels based on ‘social status’, ‘social relations’, ‘social belonging’ and finally, ‘social communication’. This method will enable me to look more closely into the cultural aspects of the choices made by the characters.
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The Social Status of the Chicks In order to get an understanding of the women, or chicks, portrayed in each of the chosen novels, I will first look into their social situations. Their social situations help define their choices in life, both in terms of career and in terms of family life or life as a single woman. Since a lot of recent research on the topic of social status and in particular single life, point to the important role of choice, especially in terms of one’s chosen social status, I will begin my analysis by clarifying what kind of choices the main characters have made. As I have pointed out in my theoretical section, being single is viewed as ‘a proactive lifestyle choice’. This is a statement I will look into in terms of how well the female heroines are dealing with their lifestyle choices within each novel. Since social expectations also play a role in terms of how one copes with one’s social status I will build my analysis around the age of each of the characters. I will start out with the youngest chick, Victoria Hart, the heroine of Singletini.
In the beginning of Singletini Victoria is twenty-four years old. She is leading a single life in Chicago, surrounded by her friends, also known as her fellow singletinis. During the course of the novel, which covers about a year of her life, Victoria faces her dreadful 25th birthday, one of her best friends’ wedding, the announcement of a pregnancy and moving to another city by one of her other close friends. What is more, she who looked like her only true friend, who held their promise about staying single and living it up in Chicago, declares that she is getting married too. All of these events emphasize the fact that Victoria seems to be the only one who took their pact seriously, or at least she is the one who ends up without a serious relationship, when all the others have found the one.
Victoria finds herself in quite a mess, when she gets fired from her job as a computer sales employee, because she stays at home one Monday morning due to a hangover, and does not bother to call in sick. Unlike her three close friends from college, Victoria does not know what to do with her life. She has not found the perfect job or even a career path, she does not have a serious boyfriend, in short, she feels lost. Her friends are all on their way to success when it comes to conquering the job market. Julia is on her way to becoming a lawyer, Kimmie is a junior copywriter at the best advertising agency in Chicago, and Gwynn works in PR for her fashion designer dad. Gwynn is also the friend who gives
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Victoria the “news that changed everything” (Trimble 2006: 10). Gwynn is the one who calls Victoria late a Sunday night, to tell her the news. ‘I’M ENGAGED!’ she squeals as soon as I pick up my cell phone. No hi. No nothing. I nearly drop the phone. ‘Are you kidding? Oh my God. Tell me you’re kidding.’ I can feel the blood rushing to my neck and cheeks. And I seriously think I might pass out. I hear Gwynn laughing at the other end of the line. ‘This isn’t funny,’ I grasp, clutching my stomach. ‘I… I can’t breathe. I mean, what? You’re engaged? Are… are you sure?’ ‘Yes, I’m sure!’ Gwynn shrieks (Trimble 2006: 11).
This is a turning point in Victoria’s life. This is the kind of news she was not expecting to hear from her friends for at least a couple of years. They made a pact promising each other to come to Chicago and have fun together, and they had always said that they would get married later on when they got older. Victoria is shocked to hear this kind of news from her friend this soon, and furthermore, even though she set them up herself, she did not think that their relationship was going so well. “I have such a bad feeling about this. And… okay, fine… it’s not only because of Bryan. I’ll admit it. What… what does this mean for me? Gwynn is going to be a W-I-F-E. Part of a legally bound couple. Where will the rest of us girls fit in?” (Trimble 2006: 13). The fact that one of the friends did break the pact makes Victoria question her own life decisions, and the fact that it might be time to act more grown up, and take responsibility for her own actions. Furthermore, it also makes her feel even more alone and lost. Victoria is talking to one of her wingwoman clients about this feeling of being lost. ‘You’re so lucky. You must be great at dating…being a wingwoman and all that. (…) ‘Hardly.’ (…) ‘I told you I was good at matchmaking other people up… not myself.’ (…) ‘I’ve dated a lot, but no one very seriously. I always seem to screw things up one way or another.’ ‘Looks like we have that in common,’ Everett jokes. ‘At least you’re not thirty and the only person you know not married.’
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‘I’m working on it,’ I say, (…) ‘My first friend just got engaged.’ ‘I see.’ Everett shakes his pudgy head knowingly. ‘That’s a tough one.’ (…) Everett’s right. It is a tough one. (…) Suddenly I feel so…lost (Trimble 2006: 86).
Being single by choice is working really well as long as her other friends are doing exactly the same, but as soon as they start moving in another direction, she gets scared that she is going to be left behind, and then being single by choice becomes a whole other story. Victoria’s fears are exactly the same ones Bridget Jones has, about ‘dying alone and being found three weeks later half-eaten by an Alsatian’. This puts into question what kind of choice Victoria actually has made by choosing to remain a singletini, since the consistency of her personal narrative relies on others to confirm her chosen lifestyle. This goes to show that choices are only as good as what the person makes of them. If your choice is based on what everyone else around you is choosing, then you are not being faithful to yourself. In Victoria’s case, she tries to hang on to what she had with her friends before they started getting engaged and talking about marriage.
In order to remain ‘one of the girls’ Victoria tries to figure out a way to choose their new lifestyle as well, and by doing so she is not going to be left behind. Of course, this gives her a few problems, mainly because she is nowhere near getting married. It gets complicated when she tries to hang on to something in the past, the feeling of unity they had when they were just out of college, when her friends have moved on and she has not. In another conversation with Everett, Victoria confesses how she really feels, “I’m scared,’ (…) ‘I’m having all these weird feelings and I’m confused. I don’t know what I want. But I know I don’t want to be left behind’” (Trimble 2006: 186). Everett tries to cheer her up by saying that it’s okay, “‘It’s okay to be scared,’ (…) ‘And it’s okay to be in a different place than your friends. Look at me. All my friends are not only married, but they have a van full of kids” (ibid). The fact that Victoria has a hard time accepting that she is the lone singletini is not made easier by the fact that her ex-boyfriend from high school is getting married too. At his wedding she starts crying, and her only explanation is: I’m not mad or angry or any of that. I don’t know what I am. As they say their vows, though, I feel this awful flood of fear wash all over me. I feel so old. I’m almost twenty-five years old and I’m not even close to this stage in my life.
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Nowhere near it. And here’s the funny thing. I never thought I wanted to be for a while… but maybe I do? It looks so sweet. So… I don’t know. It’s just so scary. I’m not ready for all this (Trimble 2006: 124).
It is also interesting to notice that Victoria at such a relatively early age feels pressured to commit and settle down. This reflects not only society’s expectations, but also that freedom of choice does not necessarily make the process of choosing any easier. At the same wedding, Victoria’s mother shares her opinion about her daughter’s chances of getting married when she says “We should consider a dry reception for you if you ever get married one day’” (Trimble 2006: 125 – emphasis added). Not only does Victoria have a hard time dealing with her singleness, when all her other friends are pairing off, but she also has to deal with her mother’s comments about her being alone, and whether or not she will ever get married. This kind of pressure is also visible in the next novel, where Helen also is struggling with society’s expectations about when it is appropriate to marry, and what is more, society’s prejudices about what might be wrong with a woman if she is not married after a certain age.
The main character in Jane Fallon’s Getting Rid of Matthew (2007) is the thirty-nine year old Helen. Unlike the two other novels, the heroine Helen lives in London, England.9 Helen is almost single, by almost single I mean that she is not in a serious relationship, but she has been seeing someone Monday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings for the past four years. She has been seeing Matthew Shallcross, who is married, has two kids and is still living with his wife Sophie. In other words, Helen is a mistress, however being a mistress was something Helen had never expected to be. She had wanted three things in life: a highly paid job in public relations, a flat of her own and a man, also belonging to her exclusively. Somehow she’d ended up
The fact that Jane Fallon is British makes for a different characterization of the characters, especially in terms of fashion, a point I will return to later on in my analysis. But to put it briefly, there seems to be a geographical difference between chick lit novels written by British authors and chick lit novels written by American authors. American chick lit seems to be more concerned with the glamorous aspect of life such as expensive clothes, expensive restaurants etc. whereas the British are more conservative in their depiction of everyday life. The difference can be defined like this: The difference resembles that of British BBC productions versus glittering American productions. One might claim that the British productions are more realistic, the characters look more like people you will meet Sunday morning at the baker’s, the British novels are more everyday like. The American novels resemble the American productions and soap operas, where the characters look gorgeous no matter what, even in a crisis situation.
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as a personal assistant, which was a secretary in anyone else’s vocabulary. She didn’t earn enough to buy, so she rented a one-bedroom flat off Camden High Street (…) And as for the man – well she believed in true love and commitment and till death do us part, it had just never happened to her (Fallon 2007: 3).
The phrase “never happened to her” illustrates the tension that arises from watching other people choose e.g. marriage like it is something that ‘happens’ to them and regarding this as something more than choice, something which requires a degree of luck or even fate, instead of a conscious choice. This also illustrates the dilemma, which is created when the abstract idea of the soul mate is combined with the principal idea of freedom of choice as a value in itself. At some point you most likely have to commit and choose in order to achieve a soul mate-like relationship, thus giving up some of your freedom. Helen grew up in a family where her parents “dogged devotion to one another, their ‘us against the world’ united front” (Fallon 2007: 3). Helen has been trying to find the perfect partner for herself, to find someone to form an ‘us against the world’ united front with. The only thing Helen never imagined was that she would find this with someone who was already married. In other words, she did not think that she would end up as someone who belonged on her and Rachel’s list of ‘Women that We Hate’.
Before she began her affair with Matthew, she was in a five-year relationship and engaged to a guy called Simon. Based on her parent’s ‘us against the world’ mentality, she could not shake off the idea that relationships are for life. “Once she decided that a relationship was worth having, she hung in there determinedly in spite of any warning signs trying to tell her otherwise” (Fallon 2007: 4). Therefore, she ignored the fact that Simon did not talk about their future, like she did. Then one night he tells her that he is being transferred, and that he does not want her to come with him. They split up, and two months later Simon is getting married to another girl. Then Matthew came along, he was twenty years older, not to mention the fact that he was one of her bosses and of course he was married. Matthew had the ability to make anyone feel as if they were the centre of his world at any given moment. (…) His success at work seemed to work as an aphrodisiac, too, on a certain type of woman of which Helen was a prime example. Mainly though, he was good company – funny, a storyteller, a good listener. He was loyal. Unless you were his wife, of course (Fallon 2007: 6).
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What is more, Helen did not believe that her relationship with Matthew was going to be more than a short-term thing, something that would take her mind off being dumped by Simon. Matthew was only going to be her rebound guy.
From the beginning of their affair, Helen’s friends kept telling her to get out, because the relationship could not possibly have a happy ending. But Helen fell in love with Matthew after a few weeks, and eventually he told her that he would leave his wife for her. But four years later nothing had happened. Because of their relationship, Helen missed her moment, and a promotion drifted away, as mentioned earlier. But instead of leaving Global PR, she stayed because she was afraid that if she was not there under his nose every day, he would find someone else. Their affair continued, and when Helen got pregnant by accident, she had to have an abortion. Helen has one very close friend, Rachel, whom she confides in, and whom she debriefs every time Matthew takes off to be with his family. Helen and Rachel have been friends for about ten years and the friendship bond between them is very much based on a list of ‘women we hate’. They have one more important thing in common, none of them is in a serious relationship, and they like to go out and get drunk and dance like they did when they were in their twenties. “Only they were both about to be forty and it was starting to look a little like desperation” (Fallon 2007: 26). But then one day Helen realizes that Rachel is not going to remain on the singles market, because she met someone special. This makes Helen think about what she has actually got going for herself. She is soon to be forty, she is a mistress, and she is far from reaching the three goals she had in life. What is more, she lies to her colleagues and parents about an imaginary boyfriend called Carlo, in order not to appear quite as pathetic. She realizes that all of her real friends started drifting away years ago. “They’d replaced the pub with quiet nights in and dinners for two, and vodka shots with bottles of Pinot Grigio” (Fallon 2007: 25).
Helen throws a dinner party once a year, where she invites two or three of her girlfriends, “and their partners because, whether she liked it or not, they came in pairs now” (ibid). The conversation around the dinner table would be about children and other things Helen had no interest in. She would try to avoid questions about when she was going to end her relationship with Matthew. She was beginning to feel that her friends judged her, because they were worried that their own husbands might have ‘a Helen’ on the side. Therefore,
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she rarely gets invited back and gets the feeling that “a single woman, unlike a single man, was a bit of an embarrassment, even with friends” (ibid). As a single, Helen simply falls into another category of friends, with whom you cannot discuss the same sort of things that couples do at social occasions. Her choice to remain single inhibits her from claiming legitimacy when it comes to issues that relate to a lifestyle with a partner.
So when the era with Rachel ends, Helen is really feeling alone and has to figure out new alternatives. And that is when Matthew decides to leave his wife and move in with Helen. However, there is one problem. Helen is not so sure she wants to stay in a relationship with him anymore. She comes up with three and a half page filled with reasons why she should leave him, and only three reasons why she should stay, “He says he loves me. He can be funny. Who else am I going to go out with?” (Fallon 2007: 49). In short, now that Helen has Matthew all to herself, she is not so sure she wants him after all. She did not choose to leave her single life behind; Matthew chose to leave Sophie. What is more, Helen did not have a choice in the matter, she did not choose to adjust, Matthew just showed up and she had to play along. She cannot handle it anymore; she wants her old life back. This could be seen as another indicator of just how powerful a force the right to choose for yourself is, because this is what pushes Helen to finally decide to leave Matthew. When the choice is suddenly out of her hands, she reacts negatively.
The three women in Lipstick Jungle (2005) represent, as I have pointed out before, a different age group, namely women over the age of forty. Unlike the main characters in the two previous novels, one of these women is still single at the age of forty-three. It is the character Victory Ford, who is a fashion designer and at forty-three she is not married and does not have any children. Because Victory is a public figure she is often asked questions about her chosen social status. There is one particular scene in the novel, where Victory is being interviewed by a young female journalist, whom Victory instantly reads as a foe, because as she says “[s]ix years of doing interviews had taught her to read an interviewer instantly as friend or foe” (Bushnell 2005: 4). The young girl begins her interview with the age question, which Victory reads as an act of open hostility. Victory corrects the girl and tells her that she is forty-three, and not forty-two. The interview continues along these
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lines: “‘And you’re not married and you don’t have children. Is it really worth giving up marriage and children for your career?’” (ibid). After this question Victory wonders “[w]hy is it that no matter what a woman accomplished in the world, if she hadn’t married and had children, she was still considered a failure?” (ibid). Furthermore, Victory finds the question “profoundly disrespectful” and “completely inappropriate”, given the fact that this is the evening of her fashion show, and focus should be on that instead of her social status. But she resists losing her temper, because she knows better and she does not want to end up in the gossip columns. Instead she thinks to herself “what could this girl know about the vagaries of life and how she’d struggled and made all kinds of sacrifices to get to this point—an internationally recognized fashion designer with her own company” (Bushnell 2005: 5). In Victory’s head she has accomplished far more than what this unpleasant reporter could ever do. The answer she gives the young woman is: “Every morning when I wake up,” Victory began, telling a story she’d told to interviewers many times before (but still, none of them seemed to be able to get it), “I look around and I listen. I’m alone, and I hear …silence.” The girl gave her a sympathetic look. “But wait,” Victory said, holding up one finger. “I hear …silence. And slowly but surely a happiness spreads through my body. A joy. And I thank God that somehow, I’ve managed to remain free. Free to enjoy my life and my career.” (…) “So much of being a woman is telling a lies, isn’t it?” Victory asked. “It’s telling yourself that you want the things that society tells you you should want. Women think that survival depends on conformity. But for some women, conformity is death. It’s a death to the soul. The soul,” she said, “is a precious thing. When you live a lie, you damage the soul” (Bushnell 2005: 5).
What Victory is trying to get across to this young woman is that it does not automatically make you happy if you choose to follow society’s expectations and get married and have children. Happiness can also be about enjoying the smaller things in life like silence in the morning, compared to the stressful morning rituals in households full of kids. Victory does not need marriage and children to be happy, she finds happiness in what she has accomplished. She actually succeeded in making it on her own as an internationally recognized fashion designer. The young journalist’s question mirrors the paradox, which Trimberger (see section about cultural expectations) notices in contemporary culture. A paradox arising from the fact that second-wave feminism has fought for women’s right to a have a career and to marry a soul-mate, while at the same time reinforcing the same old idea of happiness as something that is found in coupled love, which in turn is made even more problematic by pursuing a career as a main goal in life.
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Another incident takes place when Victory is in France and she is addressed as Madame, or if it had been in New York she would have been addressed as ma’am. “It was like she woke up one day and all of a sudden, shopclerks and taxi drivers were calling her “ma’am” instead of “miss,” as if she were suddenly middle-aged” (Bushnell 2005: 367). In the beginning it had thrown her off-balance, especially because she was not married. According to Victory, “[s]till being single in your forties was a state of being the world couldn’t really comprehend, especially in Europe and England, where women as young as thirty panicked over their biological clocks” (Bushnell 2005: 368). But Victory believes that if you were successful, you could make your own rules for how to live your life, which was a joy. “To be on her own in the world, free. Why did the world never tell women about this kind of happiness? The feeling might not last, but it didn’t matter. What was important was to experience everything in life, the struggles and the sadness, and the dizzying triumphs” (ibid). However, with today’s technological advances, Victory still has the possibility of having a child some day, if she wishes to. The drive towards making your own rules is something that tends to stir up the established part of society with its established expectations and norms. Victory has for example postponed having children and is now at an age where such a thing would involve a higher risk. Nowadays this biological restraint is being eased by modern technology and health care, and as a result the number of ‘old mothers’ having babies into their sixties is becoming a frequent topic in news stories all over the world causing outrage among most people.
One of the other main characters Wendy Healy has chosen the exact opposite life of Victory’s. She has chosen to get married and have children. At forty-two Wendy Healy is president of Parador Pictures, and one of the most powerful women in the movie business. She is married to Shane, and together they have three children. Wendy is the breadwinner in the family, because Shane does not have a job; he “hadn’t made any [money] of his own for at least ten years (…) She’d been supporting him almost from the day they met fifteen years ago”(Bushnell 2005: 23).
In the beginning of their relationship, Shane was going to be a filmmaker. He wrote a screenplay, and made an independent movie, which became a somewhat hit, and they got
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married. He continued writing screenplays, but they were not good enough to make it, so instead he tries to open a restaurant with some of the money Wendy brings home. In short, none of his projects succeed and Shane ends up staying at home looking after the children, with help from various nannies and housekeepers. Their marriage has not been optimal lately, and the result is a text message from Shane, “I wnt d*vorce” (Bushnell 2005: 94). Wendy thinks this is a cry for attention, and that “Shane could never want a divorce. Where would he go? How would he eat? How would he be able to afford those expensive Dolce & Gabbana shirts he loved so much?” (Bushnell 2005: 95). But when Wendy gets home that night Shane is not there, and the children are running around because Shane is usually the one who gets them into bed at night. That night Wendy is envious of one of her friends (the female star in many of her movies) and thinks about why she had children in the first place. For a moment, Wendy hated her. Hated her for her life of freedom, for what she didn’t have to deal with. Did she know how good she had it? (…) Why had she had kids? She wondered (…) If she hadn’t had kids, she and Shane probably wouldn’t still be together. But that wasn’t the reason. (…) She’d had children simply because it was the most natural thing to do—she’d never even questioned the possibility (Bushnell 2005: 109).
When Shane returns home later that night, he tells her that he was not kidding and that he really wants a divorce. Wendy spends most of the novel trying to save her marriage, and make Shane happy by being more appreciative of his role in the family. They try counseling and during the course of the novel they each move out of what used to be their family home.
Finally, there is the character Nico O’Neilly, who is forty-two and editor-in-chief of the magazine Bonfire. Nico is one of the most important women in publishing, and when the list of New York’s 50 most powerful women is published she is at number 8, and the one who is perceived as the most powerful of the three women in the novel. Wendy is at number 12 and Victory at number 17, and number one is Hillary Clinton. “Nico was raising up at Splatch-Verner, secretly angling to become president of the entire magazine division, which would put her just under Victor in terms of power” (Bushnell 2005: 27). On the social status side, Nico has been married to Seymour, who is a political science professor at Columbia University, for 14 years and they have an eleven year old daughter, Katrina.
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Nico has an affair with the male underwear model Kirby. They met at an after-party Bonfire was sponsoring, and Kirby approached her. [A]fter talking to him for five minutes, she’d begun thinking about what it might be like to have sex with him. She assumed that Kirby would never be interested, but it was impossible for a woman to have a conversation with a man like Kirby and not desire him. She knew she was on dangerous territory, and not wanting to risk making a fool of herself, got up to go to the bathroom. And Kirby followed her. Right into the bathroom and into the stall!” (Bushnell 2005: 14).
Later she describes those few minutes in the bathroom stall as “some of the best moments of her life” (ibid). She compares how Kirby kisses, soft smooth and wet, to how her husband Seymour kisses, puckered and dry. Nico is constantly watching out for herself, she has to keep her eyes and ears open, in order keep her reputation intact. She is constantly fighting to be taken serious in a man’s world, and therefore she has to sharpen her elbows and get in the game. She cannot have men like Mike Harness pulling tricks on her, and more importantly, she cannot have him take credit for something she has spent weeks preparing. In short, she is married to Seymour, but their life has become somewhat conformal to her, and by turning her attention to the young, handsome Kirby, she gets a kind of fix, and she feels alive again.
In order to summarize this first section of the analysis, and draw out the most important themes from each of the novels in relation to social status, I will point to the themes of belonging (or unity), failure and panic. The most important factor in relation to belonging is the portrayal of these women, and their fear of being categorized as failures, because they did not live up to society’s expectations, or even their friends’ expectations. The social expectations weigh hard on some of the characters because they are not part of ‘a gang of two’ yet, and therefore, depending on how old they are, might be looked upon as someone not normal. The only woman who has the strength to stand up for what she believes is Victory (LJ). She does not compromise in order to be accepted by others or to fit into society’s norms. Her main concern is that she should be able to defend her decisions, and not just rely on others to decide for her. This is the problem Victoria (S) experiences. She has not found out where her place in the world is yet, and therefore she is struggling to fit in, and because she is not sure where she belongs, she finds it difficult to
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stand up for her own decisions. Due to the fact that she is just out of college, and her friends mean everything to her at this point in her life, she cannot imagine finding something or someone more meaningful in her life than her friends. The same goes for Helen, who has continued the ‘college life’ for so long, that she herself labels it as a bit embarrassing. Both Victoria and Helen have trouble finding their own way and sticking to it. Victoria has to find herself and be at peace with other people making different choices. Helen on the other hand needs to take action and stop living a life that she knows does not get her to where she wants to be. She has a clear goal in life, but is too inhibited by her relationship to make the right decisions.
All in all, the first part of my analysis confirms the theoretical considerations that single people still feel some prejudges associated with being single. What is more, this part of the analysis also illustrates the discussion, I mentioned in my theoretical section, about whether or not friendship networks will last after the singles marry. In Victoria’s case, she has a conversation with Everett about what it is like to be the only one without a van full of kids. In Helen’s case, she experiences an estrangement from her friends at the annual dinner party, because they are at different stage in their lives. Both novels treat the durability of friendship networks as sore spots, when it comes to making important decisions in life, such as marriage. In Helen’s case, she clearly points out that her relationship with Rachel can never go back to where it was, because Rachel can no longer be trusted to stand by her no matter what. In Victoria’s case, there seems to be some hope, because even though her friends have been busy with their own lives, they still manage to come together in the end. Lipstick Jungle shows friendship networks from another perspective, namely that it is possible to remain friends beyond marriage and children. This is partly due to the fact that they have their careers as a mutual interest. Even though society has become more aware of the importance of this demographic group of people, it has not yet discovered the full effects of what kind of power this group of people might end up having.
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The Social Relations of the Chicks In this section, I will investigate the role of friendship networks among the female characters in the chosen novels. As I have discussed in my theoretical section, the role of friendship and in this case female friendship has become very important in the last decade. I will give examples of the ups and downs the characters go through in terms of loyalty towards their friends. Both television series such as Sex and the City and various chick lit novels suggest that platonic female friendships “are more important than sexual and romantic love and that women can be each other’s life partners in a way that men cannot” (Akass 2004:68). Based on this claim, I will analyze the actual function of friendships for the main characters, as it is depicted in the novels.
After Victoria (S) looses her job, she meets up with her friends for an emergency meeting at their favorite bar. They help out as best as they can, trying to come up with alternative job options for her. Her friend Julia says that it might be a good thing that she got fired, because, “now you can find a job you’re really excited about.’” (Trimble 2006: 24). Victoria wants to do something exciting, and not get stuck with a boring desk job again. Julia suggests that she tries out a new kind of trendy, well paying job called a ‘wingwoman’. According to Julia the job is supposed to be the new It job, and as she says, “Vic does have a knack for setting people up’” (Trimble 2006: 25). Victoria is very interested in this new and exciting job, “‘What a cool job. Can you imagine? Getting paid to go out all the time. Helping the rich and glamorous find true love… wow’” (ibid). However, her friend Kimmie is not quite as convinced about the coolness of this new kind of job, she says that it sounds like “some creepy escort service’” (ibid). The fact that Kimmie feels this way about the job makes Victoria feel awkward, because inside she can picture herself doing it, and more importantly she dreams about all the money she can make, and what she can do with this kind of money. She is more interested in the possibility of shopping at Barneys, than the fact that the job sounds rather ridiculous, and not stable in the longer run. Kimmie then suggests a job opportunity with a little more direction, and the possibility of a serious career move, namely the job as a copywriter at the same agency she is working for. Victoria knows that this option would be a smarter career choice for her, and this is what she needs to be thinking about instead of some dreamy wingwoman job. Kimmie concludes that she will try to set up an interview.
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This situation is a good example of how Victoria uses her friendship network in order to figure out what to do with her life now that she finds herself in a difficult situation. Her friends are supportive, and tell her what she is good at, and come up with alternatives. Kimmie is honest about what she thinks about the wingwoman job, and does not try to hide that she thinks Victoria should find a more serious profession. And in the end when Kimmie finds out that Victoria is in fact working as a wingwoman, she is also the one who encourages her to rethink her situation. After a night out, where Kimmie tags along to see what exactly it is Victoria does as a wingwoman, Kimmie concludes: ‘Pretty cool job’ (…) ‘Think you’ll keep it?’ Good question. I don’t know. The job pays well, that’s for sure. ‘I’ll probably keep it until something better comes along,’ I say at last. ‘Like a call girl? A madame? Or how about… a hooker?’ she winks. ‘KIMMIE.’ I thwack her on the shoulder. She shrinks back, laughing. ‘Kidding! But seriously… don’t you think you should find something more serious? You are turning twenty-five next week.’ (Trimble 2006: 228).
Kimmie does not hide her feelings about Victoria’s job, nor does she make a secret of the fact that she thinks it is an immature choice of profession. Given Victoria’s age, she should be looking for a more long term solution, and stop playing around with wishful career opportunities.
As I have pointed out in the section about social status, Victoria feels like her friends are starting to abandon her, by breaking their pact, and beginning a new chapter of their lives without her. She is not sure where friendship will fit in, in the ‘gangs of two’ that her friends are starting to form with their boyfriends. When Kimmie gets engaged too, Victoria does not react like a true friend would. “NOOOOO. Not Kimmie. This is so much worse than Gwynn getting engaged. I thought Kimmie and I were in this together. Long live the singletinis. Now she’s abandoning me, too? I can’t possibly be the lone singletini? How awful. How pathetic” (Trimble 2006: 262). Victoria’s reaction to the news is denial, she assumes that Kimmie is making a joke, grabbing her hand and holding up the ring “‘Where did you get this thing? It’s killer! Wow. I mean, it almost looks real’” (Trimble 2006: 263). When Kimmie says it is not a joke Victoria bursts out: “‘You can’t possibly know him
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after a few months. It’s outrageous. And, well, stupid!’”(ibid). Kimmie’s response is that Victoria is just jealous, which she of course denies. Kimmie tells her that she had better get used to the idea, because DJ is part of her life now, permanently, and if she cannot handle that maybe they should not be friends anymore. After Victoria leaves Kimmie she soon finds out that her reaction was wrong. Why did I say all those awful things to Kimmie? She’s my best friend. I should be happy for her! Who cares if her news surprised me? If she’s happy, I’m happy. Right? I wish I could take everything back. Start over. Throw my arms around her, jump up and down, and tell her how exciting it is (Trimble 2006: 266).
The only thing Victoria can think of to do, now that she has messed it all up, is to go shopping at Barneys. In there she concludes: “I don’t even know what I’m doing anymore. My life is a mess. Everyone else seems so put together. Like they have a grand plan they’re executing – getting married, moving to the suburbs (or New York!)…even having a baby. The trouble is, I don’t seem to be fitting into their plans” (ibid). This again illustrates the tension between watching other people around you making choices that seem inappropriate in your own life, and the amount of faith it requires to stick to your choices when consciously choosing another way of life. By labeling other people as having some sort of ‘master plan’, she postpones the thought that perhaps in life all decisions are to some extent fragile and determined by how much people stick to their choices instead of depending on having friends with matching lifestyles. This unwillingness to face the consequences of the inevitable choice is what is standing in the way for Victoria.
At Barneys she finds herself in the bridal department wondering what all the fuss is about. When she touches the fabric of one of the dresses, it is gorgeous. The lady in the department encourages her to try it on, and she does. The dress was made for her, so without thinking she blurs out that she will take it, thinking to herself if she has gone mad, because she is neither engaged, nor does she have a boyfriend anymore. The dress ends up being a symbol of her devotion to her friends. The day before her wedding day Gwynn finds out that her wedding dress is ruined, but Victoria talks her into coming with her to Barneys. Victoria gives Gwynn her wedding dress, even though Gwynn has been a real ‘bridezilla’ during the preparation period. It shows how important friendship can be, and the fact that no matter what true friends are always there if you need help. This proves true
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in the end of the novel as well where Gwynn returns the favor, by driving Victoria to a Baseball game at Wrigley Field, where Patrick is supposed to be, one hour before her wedding. Victoria needs to speak to Patrick, before he leaves for New York, or else their relationship will be over, for good. All four of the friends come together on this matter, and when Patrick does not accept her apology at the game, Victoria’s three friends call him, to make him change his mind. In short, Victoria’s friends helped her get on with her life, and because of that, she might have a plan to execute herself.
In Fallon’s Getting Rid of Matthew, there are two very important networks of friends. Firstly, there is the friendship between Rachel and Helen and secondly, there is the new relationship between Matthew’s ex-wife, Sophie and ‘Eleanor’/Helen. I will look into both of these friendships in my analysis of the role of friendship in the novel, because each of them says something important about the role of friendship. Helen and Rachel have been friends for ten years, and “[n]ever once had a man taken precedence over indulging Helen in the traumas of her personal life” (Fallon 2007: 27). In other words, Helen could always rely on Rachel to help her get things into perspective. It did not matter if Rachel was in the pub or even on a date, she would always drop everything in favor of listening to Helen’s problems about her life. To Helen, “[t]hat’s what friends are for” (Fallon 2007: 23). Rachel and Helen’s relationship made Helen feel better in more ways than one. Rachel was more successful than Helen, more beautiful, better off, but – and it’s a big but – she was single. She had no man of her own – not even a time share in one like Helen had, and that (…) put her lower down on the female pecking order. And every woman needs a friend she can feel superior to” (Fallon 2007: 23).
But then something changes everything, Rachel meets Neil, and all of a sudden she has got more important things to do than sit and listen to Helen’s relationship with Matthew. For the first time ever, Rachel asks if she can call her back tomorrow because Neil is there. Helen tries to persuade her to talk to her now instead of tomorrow. ‘He won’t mind if you chat for a bit.’ ‘I can’t. I’ll call you tomorrow, OK?’ ‘But Matthew just called me. (…)
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‘I told you, I can’t. Look, we’re having a really good time and I don’t want to break the mood, OK? I’m not going to leave him twiddling his thumbs while I chat to you. If it was life or death, then maybe, but it’s not. It can wait till the morning. Love you. Bye’ (Fallon 2007: 27).
Rachel met someone who was going to rescue her. In other words, “Neil was special. Neil was going to be the man to rescue Rachel from the stigma of being single. Helen would no longer be able to pity her friend for lack of success in relationships. Her one area of smug superiority was gone” (ibid). When Helen calls Rachel to tell her that Matthew actually left his wife and kids for her, Rachel is not really putting any effort into the conversation, which irritates Helen. However, Rachel tries to make up for it the first time she and Neil meets Matthew. Rachel puts Matthew through a series of very personal questions about whether or not he was married to his first wife when he meet Sophie, and if there are any other wives they should know about. Matthew accepts these questions, taking them to be out of concern for her friend, and furthermore, Rachel would not be a good friend if she was not concerned whether or not Helen was making the right decision. When Helen gets Rachel alone she confronts her about her attacks on Matthew. Rachel says she was just trying to help Helen out by being ‘the friend from hell’, a friend she was certain Matthew did not want to be bothered with, and consequently leave Helen again.
As I have pointed out above, Helen’s relationship with Rachel started changing, and all of a sudden Helen started following Sophie during her lunch break. Then by accident Helen falls over a tree root in a park one day, and Sophie offers to help her. Helen introduces herself as Eleanor, a freelance publicist. Helen wants to know more about Sophie, so she asks where she can find a good gym nearby. Sophie offers her one of her guest passes, and they make arrangements to meet up for a workout. Sophie is not used to making friends, in fact after she got married to Matthew she let all of her friends slide. Sophie was “a loner by nature anyway – a state which had been solidified by her devotion to her work and family, meaning as it did that she had no time for friends”. After she married Matthew, she socialized with the girlfriends and wives of Matthew’s friends. However, “[s]ometimes, inside the cosy safety of her tight-knit family life, Sophie felt heavy with loneliness” (Fallon 2007: 132). After their workout together, Sophie asks if Eleanor would like to go out for a drink sometime, and even though this is completely out of character for her, Sophie realizes that she needs someone to talk to, she needs someone to confide in, in short, she needs a friend. - 66 -
Despite the fact that Sophie and Helen’s friendship is based on a lie, they become rather close in a short period of time. Spending time with Eleanor helps Sophie take her mind off things. It reminds her that she cannot spend the rest of her life just being a mother; she needs other elements in her life as well. “When Sophie put the phone down, she smiled to herself, pleased that she’d managed the requisite ‘follow-up’ phone call. Eleanor was easy to talk to – they had things in common, she was funny and good company (…) she was enjoying forging a friendship” (Fallon 2007: 145). In fact, Sophie likes Eleanor enough to pair her off (in her head that is) with her stepson, Leo, because “there had been an undeniable spark between them when they’d met and she’d always hoped Leo would end up with someone she’d get along with” (Fallon 2007: 217). The fact that Leo is Matthews’ son makes for a bit of a dilemma for Helen, something I will return to in my analysis of Helen and her social belonging, however, Helen cannot help but feel attracted by this good-looking man. After Helen went on a date with Leo, and before she discovers that Leo is in fact Matthews’ son, she calls Rachel to tell her the good news: she has met a man and she has got a job. Rachel tells Helen to do the right thing. First of all, make up your mind about Matthew and tell him. Do not mess people around.
In terms of her relationship with Sophie, Helen is not being a loyal friend at all. To point out the obvious, the foundation of their friendship is build on a lie, everything Helen tells Sophie is not true, or at least different versions of the truth. However, one evening Sophie gets really drunk and starts talking about how much she misses her life when they were still a family, Helen decides that if she can get Matthew to move back in with Sophie, she would at least have done something good for her new friend. Helen really likes Sophie and that is the problem, “she felt comfortable hanging out in the pub and drinking with her. She wanted her to be happy, she realized. In fact, she hated the thought that she was investing so much in a friendship which was destined to end abruptly in a few weeks’ time” (Fallon 2007: 255). Helen is enjoying having someone else, someone a bit older to talk to besides Rachel, who practically is not present in Helen’s life anymore. Without someone to talk to she felt lonely. When Sophie tells Helen that Matthew asked her to sleep with him on the weekend where his mother was buried, and that she has decided that she wants him back, Helen cannot help but thinking that Matthew is still lying to Sophie. He told Sophie that he
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only had the affair with Helen six months before he left her, which was a bit of an understatement.
Rachel and Helen meet for lunch, after not having seen each other for weeks and Rachel tells Helen the news, that Neil and she are getting married. Helen starts crying because she feels miserable and her life is a complete mess, and “Rachel was the only person she could talk to about it because Rachel was the only one who knew. And thinking that made her cry even more, because soon she might not even have Rachel” (Fallon 2007: 259). Rachel is not loyal to Helen in the sense of being a loyal friend, because she gets too carried away in her own wedding plans to care about what is going on in her friend’s life. A good example is when Helen calls Rachel to tell her about her new job as a junior account manager, where Rachel “was thrilled for all of thirty seconds, and then went into a long monologue about place settings and tiaras” (Fallon 2007: 288). In other words, Rachel had become one of the women on their list ‘Women who put their boyfriends before their friends’ and ‘Women who bore you to death with stories about their wedding and/or babies’ (ibid).
Helen knows that as soon as Matthew returns home to Sophie it will be the end of their friendship, and then for a period of time she will have to do without friends, because Rachel is still wrapped up in her wedding. However, Helen knows that Rachel will return once the wedding is over, but their relationship can never get back to where it was before, because now Helen knows that Rachel cannot be counted on regardless. On Helen’s last night out with Sophie she is in for a surprise, Matthew has decided to stop by to say hello to Sophie’s new friend. Helen cannot escape this situation. Sophie is hurt, shocked and angry at the same time, when she finds out that Eleanor is in fact Helen. ‘I felt bad about what I’d done. I realized I didn’t want Matthew any more and I felt awful that he’d given up his family.’ (…) ‘I thought I could try and help you get back together. Put things right.’ ‘You made up this whole thing? You… engineered our friendship to try and fuck with my life even more? I confided in you. I told you…things. Christ, you fucking bitch’ (Fallon 2007: 389).
Helen also tells Sophie the truth about how long they were together, and that Matthew still got things left in her apartment, she is not saying it to hurt Sophie even more, but to show
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her that Matthew is still lying to her and he is never going to change. Before Helen leaves she tells Sophie that “I’ve really valued our friendship and I’m really going to miss you.’ (…) ‘I know you’re never going to believe that but it’s true’” (Fallon 2007: 391). After their friendship is over, Helen misses Sophie a lot, and realizes that even though they did not know each other for years, Sophie had left a big gap in her life.
On Helen’s fortieth birthday, Sophie shows up outside her door with a cake, because she felt bad that Helen might be all alone on her birthday, given that she had no friends. At first it feels awkward having Sophie in her apartment, but then Sophie tells Helen what happened after she left the pub. Sophie hated Helen that evening and it was really hard to take it all in. However, Sophie knew that Helen was telling the truth about Matthew and the fact that he was still lying to her. The bottom line is that Sophie never took him back. Sophie miss whoever she thought was her friend, and she would like to get that friendship back, no more lies, she wants to know the real Helen this time. This underscores the imperative nature of close friendship in a cultural environment where commitment to the opposite sex is a big chance, which can result in loosing friends and changing priorities. This change can appear like a loss of control, which again is unwanted in a culture where individual choice is of huge value. Having a ‘Mrs. Right’ to help guide you is a big part of being able to navigate in what the next novel labels a Lipstick Jungle, where the three women rely on each other for support, also in areas where a man might have been even more valuable.
In Lipstick Jungle the three women have a close relationship with each other. Nico and Victory met each other eleven years ago at a party at Victory’s loft. After being fired from her job as editor-in-chief of Glimmer magazine, Nico was asked to leave the building. She realized that she had left the building without her purse, her phone, her keys and her money. She could not walk the forty blocks uptown to her apartment, because she was three months pregnant and suffering from morning sickness. Victory’s loft is near by, so she decides to go there. When they had met at the party, they had ended up in the corner talking about their careers for over an hour. Victory was an up-and-coming fashion designer then, and she had that subtle air of confidence and focus that usually indicates future success. Nico didn’t meet
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many women like Victory, and when they began talking, it was like two dogs realizing they belonged to the same breed (Bushnell 2005: 154).
Victory did not question why Nico suddenly showed up at her loft, but instead she was glad to see her. After Nico got fired, she had to show the rest of the world that she was not one to quit that easily, so three nights a week she attended “the rounds of cocktail parties, openings, and dinners that made up the social fabric of New York publishing” (Bushnell 2005: 156). During this time, she found out who her real friends were, and who were not. “There were people with whom she’d thought she’d had a relationship who brushed her off. And there were others like Victory and Wendy, who were there, who didn’t care if she’d been fired from Ratz Neste or not” (ibid).
The friendship between Nico and Victory is depicted as stronger, more deep and confidential than any other friendship in the novel. Nico once loaned Victory forty thousand dollars, because she did not have enough money to manufacture her next collection. Victory would never dream of asking for a loan herself, but one evening Nico “had appeared at her studio like a fairy godmother” (Bushnell 2005: 63). Nico did not ask questions, she just said, “‘I have the money and you need it,” she said, writing out a check. “And don’t worry about not being able to pay me back. I know you will’” (ibid). When Victory first met Nico, “she never imagined that Nico would end up teaching her about friendship that behind her aloof exterior was a fiercely loyal person” (ibid). The fact that Nico lends Victory this kind of money illustrates the point made by Trimberger that friends support each other even financially. In other words, Nico encourages Victory to take a personal risk in order to meet her goals, which in this case is to manufacture another collection in her own name. Victory returns the favor, when she sets up secret meetings between Glynnis Rourke and Nico. Glynnis has got information that will make it easier to fire Nico’s biggest competition, Mike Harness. “The short version was that Glynnis Rourke, who had signed on to do a magazine with Mike Harness (…) was planning to sue Mike Harness and Splatch-Verner for breach of contract” (Bushnell 2005: 334). The fact that Mike has made a mistake like this, and that this kind of lawsuit would be all over the papers is enough to fire him. Nico knows that the CEO of Splatch-Verner, Victor Matrick would not like the bad press. So if she can convince Victor that firing Mike is the best thing to do, it would make way for Nico in terms of a promotion. This incident points to the importance of friendship, because without her friend, Nico would not have had this - 70 -
information when it was most needed, and then she would not have had the chance of climbing the ladder.
Like in Sex and the City, the three women meet up for lunch dates, where they catch up on what is going on in each other’s lives. At one of these lunch dates Victory looks at her friends and thinks about how much they mean to her; “[she] looked at her friend with affection. Her relationships with her girlfriends were invaluable, because it was only with women that you could really be vulnerable—you could ask for a pat on the back, without worrying about being seen as hopelessly insecure” (Bushnell 2005: 63). The support these women gain from their close friends is also related to the fact that each of them is a part of a male dominated business world, and therefore, they understand what the others are going through. By sticking together, and looking out for each other, they can use their friendship network in a positive way also when it comes to promotion. These women support each other through thick and thin. They show up for important events in each other’s lives, such as Victory’s fashion show in the beginning of the novel, and Wendy’s screening of her life long film project in the end. They meet up at the end of the novel, where they discuss strategies of staying in the game, and toast each other’s friendship and their power in New York City.
To sum up this section about social relations and how it is depicted in the three novels, the most important feature of female friendship is loyalty. Because as I pointed out in my theoretical section, Pahl contends that friendship could be seen as a very important ‘social glue’. My analysis of female friendship has shown just how important a bond friendship can be between women. To a great extent, Pahl’s notions about how important it is to have social support in the form of social contact and group membership, has proven to be very essential in the three novels. Each of the women has had to rely on their friends at least one time during the course of the novels. Whether it is a personal problem, business related, or simply what to do next in life. For the most times, the women support each other through thick and thin. In other words, the feeling that someone close to us trusts our decisions, supports us emotionally and financially if that is needed is very important for our wellbeing. As Pahl pointed out, through friendship we gain practical and emotional support, support that functions as an important contribution to our personal identities. However, as
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we have seen examples of in Singletini and Getting Rid of Matthew, friendships can also be the cause of much frustration. This frustration occurs when the characters feel that their friends have let them down, by not living up the expectations of what a good friend is. As Harris (2005) argues, maintaining a friendship through obstacles like marriage is a great part of the value of friendship itself. When Rachel does not support Helen as expected, it casts a shadow on the entire relationship between them. Not only does friendship involve support, it sometimes also involves having to make a decision about you own lifestyle and direction in life. When friends start changing their lifestyles it becomes necessary to act accordingly by accepting these changes and sometimes by 'moving on' yourself, and taking risks that might lead you in another direction than your friends. Friendship networks are not just mirrors that work to confirm your own sense of self; they can also turn out to be disturbing wake-up calls. Especially, when friends choose to leave a certain way of life behind them. This feeling of being left behind, will also be a central theme in the next section of my analysis, social belonging, where some of the characters need to make important decisions in relation to their friends as well as their own lives.
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The Social Belonging of the Chicks I will now analyze how the female characters navigate life in terms of how they cope with all the different choices they have to make in order to try and keep a particular narrative going. In other words, I will look into how the women use their self-identity to express who they are. I will apply Anthony Giddens’ theory of self-identity in order to analyze the story of who each of the characters really is.
One could go as far as to claim that an identity-crisis might be a more correct word to use in connection with Victoria (S), who clearly does not know what to do with her life if she does not have her friends to lean on. In short, I do not think that Victoria knows who she really is, and therefore, she does not know how her personal narrative is going to develop. All she can see is her friends moving in the other direction. As I have pointed out before, she is suffering from a quarter-life crisis. The symptoms are certainly there: “Are you torn between having a career and having a life? Do all your friends seem more successful than you? Are you suffocated by choice, responsibility, and self-doubt? If money, homelife and relationships are constant stresses then you are not alone – and you could be having a quarterlife crisis” (Robbins 2001: back cover). Victoria has not quite come to terms with all the decisions she has to make. The everyday choices such as clothing, appearance and leisure, she can almost handle without too much trouble. However, when it comes to high impact decisions such as relationships and occupations, her life is a total mess. For her to make these kinds of decisions would mean that she would have to grow up, she would have to live her life as a grown up, and be more responsible, something she is not ready to be at the beginning of the novel. Furthermore, since self-identity is no longer static, as Giddens claims, Victoria cannot rely on others to tell her what to do, there will be no clear defined role for her to step into; she has to work out what her role is by herself.
In terms of a serious relationship, Victoria is, as I pointed out in the section about social status, single, but she is still on the lookout for someone special. Especially, now that the prospect of her being the lone singletini is becoming more and more real as the days progress. At her job interview with the advertising agency, Victoria meets Patrick, an attractive Orlando Bloom look-alike, who happens to be Kimmie’s boss. What is more, Patrick Lewis is also one of Victoria’s first clients as a wingwoman. On another
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wingwoman gig she meets Aiden, he is not interested in any of the girls in the club, but would really like to take Victoria home with him. At first she says she cannot, because she is working and he is her client. The next morning Kimmie calls: ‘Where the hell are you? Kimmie shouts. What? I’m at home. Aren’t I? I hold the cell phone back from my ear a few inches, squinting in pain as I slowly skim the unfamiliar bedroom. I… I’m not exactly sure,’ (Trimble 2006: 109).
Even with her job as a wingwoman, Victoria is not ready to take her job seriously. To her it is just one long mix of partying and shopping for designer clothes. She gets too drunk, something she should be able to control, since her job is to find dates for her clients, which is impossible if she is to drunk to start a conversation with another woman. Furthermore, she sleeps with her client Aiden, which is against the rules. “It goes without saying, but Chicago Wingwoman strictly prohibits dating clients. This means no kissing or romantic relations of any kind (no matter how attractive he is). You are not a date. You are his wingwoman” (Trimble 2006: 62). Unlike Patrick, Aiden seems to be a playboy, flirting with everyone around him, and all too aware of his good looks.
After one of Victoria’s wingwoman gigs, Patrick shows up asking her if she wants to walk with him for a bit. Patrick slips his navy corduroy blazer around my shoulders and offers me his arm, and we’re off. I love the feel of his coat around me. So warm. So safe. So perfect.” (…) As we cross the Chicago River and slowly make our way up Michigan Avenue, I find myself awestruck by how gorgeous the night is. All the glittering lights above our heads. It’s so magnificent. So alive. Almost as if the city has its own pulse. Its own heartbeat. We’re both quiet for a while. Maybe it’s because we’re tired. Maybe it’s because we don’t want to break the magical silence. (…) Whatever it is, the silence feels good. It feels right (Trimble 2006: 158-159).
Victoria does not want this walk to end, and when Patrick pulls her closer to gently kiss her, she thinks ‘who cares about Aiden’. Compared to Aiden, who calls her up when he is drunk, this thing with Patrick has got a lot more potential of becoming more serious. Even though Victoria is thrilled with the way things are going with her and Patrick, she does not think about the effects of her ‘friendship’ with Aiden. After the wingwoman fashion show, Patrick is talking to Victoria’s dad, when Aiden comes over “‘Hey, doll,’ Aiden says,
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sauntering up and squeezing my waist. ‘Killer outfit up there. Maybe I can get a closer look later on?’” (Trimble 2006: 181). Patrick had not expected to see another guy all over Victoria, which of course makes him feel like a fool. Victoria needs to figure out which one of them means the most to her, and more importantly, what kind of relationship she is looking for. In other words, Victoria needs to choose which narrative fits her the best at this moment in her life. With Aiden the narrative would consist of partying, and with Patrick it would be a more adult, more responsible narrative. To Aiden, Victoria is just another pretty face, but to Patrick she is much more. The fact that Patrick is seven years older than Victoria is also important, because this means that he might be looking for something more serious. A serious relationship is what she should be looking for if she wants to follow in the footsteps of her friends.
After the incident at the fashion show, Victoria has got a wingwoman gig with Patrick and his friends. Patrick thinks that Victoria made it pretty clear that she was with Aiden, and therefore, he just wants her to do her job, which is to hook him up with a woman. After Victoria has set Patrick and his friends up, she leaves. She is upset, and starts crying. She wished she would have had a chance to explain to Patrick that she does not even like Aiden, but that she likes him. Patrick leaves the bar alone, and comes over to a crying Victoria. She immediately thinks that he has come over because he needs her to fix him up with someone else, but that is not what he wants. Patrick kisses her again, and tells her that she is the one he wants. Victoria has “never felt happier in her entire life” (Trimble 2006: 204). Weeks pass, and Victoria and Patrick’s relationship is going fine, in fact Victoria thinks she is in love, “I think I love Patrick. Not that I’d tell him. Yet. But, well, I’m crazy about him. And I think he’s crazy about me too” (Trimble 2006: 219). In other words, everything is going great until Victoria screws it up again, by using Patrick’s credit card without his knowledge to pay for most of Gwynn’s bachelorette party, a total of $8,200, because her own credit card was maxed. Patrick is disappointed by the fact that she did not call him first, he would have let her borrow the money, but the fact that she did it behind his back is too much for him. He needs time to think. Victoria has not heard from him in over a week. When she meets Aiden outside Kimmie’s (and Patrick’s) office, right after the ‘I’m engaged fight’ she had with Kimmie, Victoria needs to get away and goes with Aiden in his car. Aiden comes on to her, but Victoria is not interested anymore. So when
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she gets out of the car in front of the advertising agency, Patrick comes out the door. Seeing Victoria with Aiden again makes Patrick feel hurt and disappointed, and he breaks up immediately. Victoria is still not prepared to act like an adult, and take responsibility for her actions. In a way, she is stuck between two very different narratives, depending on which man she chooses. Consequently, her lack of ability to make a decision stands in the way of both her relationships, and gets her into trouble with the one guy who means the most to her, namely Patrick.
After Patrick breaks up with her, her first thought is to go shopping, as I have explained in the section about social relations, in order to feel better about the whole situation. She cannot decide for herself what to do, so she calls up Everett for his advice. He tells her that she should stop being scared, and that she already knows what to do. She is afraid that they might not forgive her, but that it is something she will have to live with if that turns out to be right. After her conversation with Everett, she is sitting outside watching people as they pass by. I watch as all these families, these generations pass me by. They look so happy. So full of life. Why am I so scared of growing up? Of getting older? Whether it’s marriage, turning twenty-five, moving to new cities (or the suburbs!), having kids, whatever? I mean, these people seem completely content. Maybe I’ve been wrong this whole time? (Trimble 2006: 273).
This relates to Kellner’s point about how anxiety is a constituent experience for the self in modern society as well as in the postmodern society, where identities increasingly are chosen instead of being predetermined. Victoria’s indecision about her future leads to anxiety, which she often chooses to relieve by consuming although it does not do her any good. In a way she realizes that for her to still feel as if she belongs somewhere, whether it is with her group of girlfriends, or whether it is with a group of colleagues, she needs to be content with her choices. She does not have to hurry and get married just because all of her girlfriends are doing that, she needs to figure out what she wants out of life, and keep her own narrative going, instead of trying to latch onto someone else’s life and lifestyle choices. She needs to find her own way out of her quarterlife crisis, and start thinking about what she wants, and what would be wise in the future as well.
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In the end, Victoria is offered a new job, as a spokesmodel for the wingwoman company. What is more, Chicago Wingwoman has hired Nine Communications, which is the company Patrick is going to New York to take over, to do a national campaign. Victoria will have to move to New York for a few months to do photo shoots and other promotional things. In the usual chick lit way the ending is not wrapped up in a bow, with all her problems solved, however Victoria feels a sense of hope about the direction her life is going, and is ready to start a new chapter in New York. Her concluding remark is “[a]s Patrick bends down and kisses me good-bye, I realize that I’m officially the happiest, luckiest singletini in Chicago. And, well, maybe soon I’ll be the happiest ex-singletini in Manhattan? I mean, you never know. New York might not be sooo bad… Right?” (Trimble 2006: 309). Victoria follows her heart, and for a moment she is not preoccupied with what everyone else around her has got the she has not. This gives her time to concentrate on what is important in her own life, and she makes a decision, purely based on her own wishes and not based on what kind of lifestyle choices her friends have chosen for themselves.
Helen’s (GRoM) biggest problem is how to get rid of Matthew again, now that he has given up his whole life for her. It does not make it easier that Matthew’s son Leo is rather attractive, the same age as Helen, and actually interested in her, well, he is interested in Eleanor (Helen’s alter ego) to be exact. In other words, at thirty-nine Helen has to make some serious decisions about what to do with the rest of her life. Clearly, she is not happy about the fact that her only other single friend is now getting married, leaving her all alone in her misery. So, should she just accept the fact that Matthew is now living with her, or should she break up with him, and give Leo a chance? In order to answer these questions she has to figure out whether or not she will continue being ‘the husband stealer’ or if she wants to be in a relationship with someone her own age, someone without a wife and kids at home.
After Matthew surprises her with the news that he has in fact left Sophie, and that he now wants to live with Helen, she can barely concentrate while he is telling her about the break up. Helen tries to bring up the possibility of Matthew going back to his wife and kids
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again, but the result is that he gets ‘clingy’. Helen feels that she has to at least give it a chance after all he did burn all his bridges for her. However, Rachel is not convinced: “‘How flattering to have a man want to spend the rest of his life with you with you because he doesn’t think his wife’ll take him back if you throw him out’” (Fallon 2007: 69). Furthermore, Helen does not have the same feelings for Matthew as she used to think she had. Living together with him has showed her sides of him, she would have liked not have seen. After Helen meets Leo, and after they ended their perfect date, she cannot help but focus on how old Matthew in fact is. “Up against Sonny [Sonny is Leo’s nickname], he suddenly seemed ridiculous. Not the powerful, suited successful man in his prime she had fallen for, but his ageing, out-of-touch slightly needy older brother” (Fallon 2007: 186). After having met Leo, Helen realizes what men her own age are like, and she thinks about what it would be like to be in a relationship with someone who were not about to live off his pension. Furthermore, Helen wonders whether or not all this would have been a problem for her, if she really loved Matthew. Helen comes to the conclusion that “she didn’t truly love him. At least, not enough” (ibid). By this realization, Helen has found out who she really is in terms of what she wants in a relationship. Up until this point, she has been clinging on to Matthew, because she thought she was too old to find someone else who would love her. Additionally, she has not gone out on any real dates with men her own age for the past four years, because she had Matthew, and he was going to leave his wife for her. In terms of relationships this realization also helps Helen figure out who she would like to be. All the time, after Matthew moved in, she has been wondering how he could be happy with the situation. Helen and he hardly have sex anymore, the flat is too small for both of them and he does not see his kids more than once a week. Indirectly, she has been trying to find a way to let him know that she was not happy with the arrangement. What is more, Helen is not open to Matthew’s suggestion that they could buy another flat together.
Sophie had suggested that Eleanor could do Leo’s PR for the restaurant, but now that Helen has found out who Leo in fact is, she cannot bring herself to have contact with him anymore. Leo is disappointed that they are not going to be spending any more time together, but understands that Helen has got some personal problems to take care of, and then when that is taken care of maybe they can get together again. This means that all the
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while Helen is planning how to get rid of Matthew, she is thinking about what she could have had with Leo.
Helen’s first real attempt of breaking up with Matthew does not go quite as planned. She tells Matthew that she is not happy and that she wants her life back. “‘You don’t love me?’ ‘I don’t think I do, no. Sorry.’ ‘But you said you did. All those times. You begged me to leave Sophie and move in with you’” (Fallon 2007: 237). Being with Matthew was what she thought she wanted, or at least she wanted it at one point of their affair. Matthew confronts her with the fact that she cannot just change her mind like that. They have ruined people’s lives. On top of it, Matthew breaks down, begging her not to leave him, saying that “’I’m too old to start again. I couldn’t cope. I’m telling you, I’d do something stupid’ (ibid). Helen has not got the strength to stick by her choice yet and blames it on the fact that she might actually be a nice person deep down.
So, Helen continues her struggle to get rid of Matthew in the best way possible. However, in terms of work, things are looking a bit brighter. After she quit Global PR, she got an opportunity to start up a new firm with her boss Laura. Helen is not going to take the chance of being passed over once again, so when opportunity knocks, she takes the offer right away. Her new job is as a junior account manager in the new PR firm. When Matthew is starting to realize that he might have made a mistake, and he is trying to patch things up with Sophie, Helen is, as I have mentioned previously, secretly trying to get her own life back, by playing matchmaker or in this case peacemaker. When the long awaited breakup finally takes place and Matthew tells her that he thinks he has made a mistake by leaving Sophie, and that he is falling back in love with her, all Helen says is OK. But in her mind she is thinking: So that was it. Four years of her life, four years of fighting for her man and passing up other opportunities and allowing friendships to slide and her selfesteem to follow. And it had all come to what? To a feeling of relief that it was finally over and a wave of regret that she had thrown away so much time and energy on what had been – all along, it had turned out – a lost cause. She felt deflated – but it was the wasted years, the time she would never get back, that depressed her, not the thought of a life without Matthew (Fallon 2007: 377).
For Helen it feels right to be alone again, it feels scary but at the same time right. Her plan is to take things slow, and make no mistakes. Everything has to be right this time around,
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work, friends, her home and a possibly new relationship. In other words, since she did not have the courage to leave him when she had the chance, she maneuvered everyone around so that she would get her freedom in the end, and everyone would probably be happy. In the end, Helen got a chance of a new life, new opportunities, new friends, a new job and possibly a new relationship. Since Leo did bake the cake Sophie brought by on her 40th birthday, there might be basis for reconciliation between the two of them, even though he knows the truth about Eleanor and Helen.
In Bushnell’s Lipstick Jungle, I will look at each of the female characters, because they have some very important choices to make in order to continue their lifestyle. In short, Victory has to decide whether or not she wants to sell her brand ‘Victory Ford Couture’ and let other people have a say in the design process as well, or if she will continue being the only one in charge of the company. Furthermore, she needs to figure out if her relationship with the older much richer Lyne Bennett is something she feels strongly about. Nico, on the other hand, needs to figure out why she is having an affair, and how to stay in power in a man’s world. As for Wendy, she needs to figure out whether or not she can live without Shane. In other words, should she get a divorce and find someone much more supportive of her career like Selden Rose?
Victory has only had herself to answer to for a long period of time. She never lets a man in, at least not close enough for her to be dependent on him. When she is out on a date with Lyne Bennett, Victory lets him know that she does not depend on anyone but herself. She orders “three ounces of beluga caviar”, which offends Lyne. “Most people are satisfied with one ounce of caviar” (Bushnell 2005: 132). Victory had planned to pick up the check for the dinner from the beginning, and does so without Lyne’s knowledge. “Maybe it was juvenile, but the truth was that picking up the check put you in a position of power, and even if it was something that most women didn’t fully understand, for businessmen like Lyne it was the most basic gesture of control” (Bushnell 2005: 133). In this episode, Victory shows how much independence and power means to her. She knows how to navigate the masculine business world, and she knows which buttons to push in order to test Lyne and his willingness to let go of his ever-present control over every situation.
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Despite the fact that Lyne seems to have forgotten his manners, Victory continues seeing him. Lyne had fallen in love with Victory and she with him. Or, ““in love” was far too strong a word for it, Victory thought. But it could have been the beginning of “in love”. The warm, fuzzy, affectionate feeling you had for a man when you suddenly discover that you liked him” (Bushnell 2005: 124). Victory feels that she is a woman of the world. Lyne might technically have more money than her, but she has made a name for herself, got her own business and her own interesting life. She does not need a man like Lyne or his money, but what makes it fun being with him is that he is an “entertaining asshole”.
Victory’s relationship with Lyne goes up and down and is purely a power struggle between the two of them. In other words, Victory is trying to figure out who to be, in terms of selfidentity. She is used to making it on her own, but now that she likes Lyne, she is forced to think about the person she would become if things with Lyne got serious. What is more, Victory is very interested in the man in the beginning of every new relationship, “thinking that finally, she might have met the right guy” (Bushnell 2005: 373), but then after a while she starts to get bored. “[E]ventually, [she] found men and relationships a bit dull” (ibid). In other words, Victory has to figure out whether or not she was happier being single or if her time with Lyne has made her want more, and possibly a serious relationship. Again it seems that there is a conflict between changing her present lifestyle and the fact that she is searching for ‘the one’ to commit to. You could say that she is torn between wanting freedom of choice, while at the same time wanting a deeper and more meaningful (committed) relationship. The romantic aspiration of finding ‘the one’ acts as both a catalyst in the early stages of her relationships, and as an danger restricting her from pursuing her career completely.
Furthermore, she is also trying to figure out how to navigate in the business world. She has to decide what to do, in relation to her own company. What is more, she has to figure out which is the best way to make a profit on her company. She does not want to loose all of her control over the brand. However, she would like to make a profit on her brand while it is hot. One weekend that changes everything, is the weekend away in the Bahamas, where Victory thought they were going to relax. Instead, Lyne hands out a schedule for the weekend when they arrive. In this situation, Victory does not quite know how to act,
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because she knows that it would make Lyne mad if she did say something, but on the other hand, she is bored, and it was not the relaxing weekend she was promised. So when she gets an opportunity to cut the weekend short, because she has got a meeting in Paris, she takes it. Lyne has got a private jet, and he offers it to Victory on several occasions. She knows that if she took the offer her life would be smoother, at least in the short run, however, she sticks to her rules. She knew how easy it was to get used to Lyne’s style of living, and to get sucked into thinking that you were special and couldn’t live any other way. And from there, it was a slippery slope. Not just because that lifestyle could be snatched away in a second, but because of what you found yourself willing to do in order to keep it—like making the man your priority instead of your work (Bushnell 2005: 248).
So instead of taking Lyne up on his offer to borrow the plane, Victory tells him that she does not need his plane. Victory returns from Paris with a huge offer from the French company for her company ‘Victory Ford Couture’. This means that Victory has to choose whether or not to sell her ‘baby’, because that would require a whole new lifestyle. She would have to move to Paris for a while, and leave her friends behind in New York. She would be developed as an American couture designer in France. The opportunity to do a couture line is something Victory has been dreaming of doing for a long time. There would be a huge risk involved, because she could end up loosing her company, but she would also earn 25 million dollars by agreeing to their deal. “But life was about risks. She’d been worried that B et C had a secret plan to buy her name and take away her involvement” (Bushnell 2005: 369). And once B et C owned you, you could not start another company. So, Victory is putting her whole lifework on the market without no guarantee that it will profit her in the long run. So in relation to her company, she is about to make the biggest decision of her life.
Lyne and Victory break up towards the end of the novel, because Victory has decided that she cannot take Lyne’s interference in her business no more. He keeps showing up at her office, disturbing her when important people are there, etc. Lyne thinks it is about money, that Victory somehow needs him for his money. Victory’s argument is ““I never needed you. And especially not your money. (…) “Okay,” she said. ‘You’re right. It is about the money. I don’t want to be with a man who has as much money as you do. Because it’s all about you. You keep trying to drag me into your world, when I’m perfectly happy with the
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world I’ve made for myself’” (Bushnell 2005: 375). She is sick and tired of Lyne’s ideas, and everything has to be done his way. She feels alone after the break up, but finds comfort in her career.
During her week in France, when she is closing the deal, Victory makes a few mistakes and in the end Lyne is there to help her. Victory had gotten too drunk to remember much of what had happened, but Lyne fills her in. Victory had told her future business partner, Pierre that “someday [she’d] have a yacht that was bigger than his” (Bushnell 2005: 399). According to Lyne, Victory gave Pierre the Victory Ford Special, telling him that women were going to rule the fashion world, which would then put him out of a job within the next ten years. Lyne however, thinks that Victory had the right to defend herself, because Pierre had said to her that “once you got the money, you should stop working and find a man and have children” (Bushnell 2005: 400). The result is that Victory does not get a Paris deal or the 25 million dollars. However, she makes up with Lyne and back in New York, Victory soon gets another deal with Huckabees. In the end, Victory chooses to give her relationship with Lyne a chance, even though they are very different people. So Lynn ends up saving their relationship because he saves Victory from business embarrassment, which again emphasizes the pivotal role of work and career in Victory’s life.
As I have pointed out in the section about social status, Nico is married but is having an affair with a much younger guy, Kirby. Her marriage is not as exciting as it used to be fourteen years ago, so as a way of feeling in control, she begins her affair with Kirby. In the beginning, she did not believe that he would be interested in someone like her, Nico has an extremely cool exterior, but on the inside she is shy and vulnerable. Nico is afraid that she is going to fail in a man’s world; she is constantly aware that if she is not careful, someone will step in and take her place. She is terrified that one day she might get fired, and if that happened she would not be able to pay the mortgage on their very expensive townhouse.
Because she is struggling to keep cool in the business world, she begins the affair, because “[t]here was, Nico O’Neilly thought, an ownership in sex. If you owned your sex life, you owned the world. Or felt like you did, anyway” (Bushnell 2005: 145). In other words, she
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is struggling with herself and the different roles she plays in different surroundings. She has to be sharp and tough when at work, she has to be understanding and supportive when around her husband, and lastly, she has to be motherly and caring when she is around her daughter. This is an effect caused by the fact that women are now part of the business world, and no longer just have to concentrate on the role of being a good wife and mother, but have got a third equally important role in terms of handling a career. The fact that Seymour and Nico are not having sex anymore, seems to be putting some tension between them. Or at least, Nico is discovering that since she has been having the affair with Kirby, she has felt like she was on top of the world. “Her walk was brisk, her remarks sharp. She smiled a lot and made jokes. (…) She was filled with desire—not just for Kirby, but for life” (ibid). Kirby might in fact be helping her career. Having Kirby show up at events, without anyone knowing about the two of them, made her feel powerful. Nico needs all the power she can get if she wants to make it even further in a man’s world. The job Nico is striving towards is president of the whole of Verner Publishing, although she knows that normally editors in chief “could go no higher—once you became an editor in chief, you could only move laterally, becoming the editor in chief of another magazine. But she didn’t care about precedent. If someone said something couldn’t be done, it seemed like something worth trying” (Bushnell 2005: 332). This is the incident where Victory helps out, because she gives Nico some information that will help her get rid of her biggest competition, Mike Harness. “It wasn’t ultimately important, in terms of happiness, whether she got Mike’s job or not. It would make her happy for a minute. (…) And once she had the position, she would bust her ass to do a great job. Sometimes that’s all there was, really, the day-to-day desire to do it better, to fix it, and if that was all there was, then so be it” (Bushnell 2005: 328).
The fact that Victory gives Nico the information she needs in order to fire Mike is also a clear example of how women help each other out, and Nico’s friendship with Victory is, as I have elaborated on earlier, very close. As friends they look out for each other, and this is also why Nico tells Victory about her affair with Kirby. In a way, Nico asked Victory for help. As she says: ““I’m not as cold a person as everyone thinks I am,” (…) “I have desires. Am I supposed to suppress those desires for the rest of my life?” (Bushnell 2005: 324). Victory argues that “some people would say that a marriage is over when you stop
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having sex” (Bushnell 2005: 325). If Nico decides to continue her affair with Kirby, she should at least tell Seymour about it. Nico knows that Victory is right, and “subconsciously, she had probably told her about the affair so that Victory would talk her out of it. She knew it was wrong and that she had to stop, but it hadn’t been so easy to disentangle herself” (Bushnell 2005: 326). What is more, she feels that her ‘Kirby fix’ is not as powerful as it was in the beginning, so soon she might not get a kick out of it anyway.
Another indication that she needs to stop what she is doing, is the fact that Nico’s daughter, Katrina, is also starting to worry about whether or not her parents are happy together, as she says: “I don’t want to be the reason you stay together” (Bushnell 2005: 296). These questions, coming from her daughter, really affect Nico and she feels guilty. “Where on earth had Katrina gotten the idea that she and Seymour weren’t happy? Was her affair with Kirby somehow obvious? (…) Having Kirby had relieved some of unspoken pressure in their relationship—the fact that she and Seymour hardly had sex no longer concerned her” (Bushnell 2005: 296). Katrina had seen a blind item in the New York Post, which made it sound like Nico was having an affair. But Nico reassures her daughter that she is not having an affair, and makes a mental note to herself that she must end it that day. When she does end it, she tells Kirby that he knew she was married, and that she loves her wonderful husband and does not want to hurt him. Kirby feels used. In fact she had used Kirby, “to discover her real feelings for Seymour” (Bushnell 2005: 428). In the end she pays Kirby 5,000 dollars not to have sex with her again. After that she feels free. In other words, she feels content with her decision in the end, she no longer needs to lie to the people she loves, and she can relax and focus on her new job.
So Nico has to go through Kirby to experience that she is a woman again. Nico moves in a very non-feminine, power-driven environment which makes it necessary for her to downplay the emotional part of her, which is needed to be a wife and mother. By experiencing that Kirby is attracted to her, her femininity is somehow brought back to life. By taking this detour she somehow ends up not choosing to confront Seymour, but uses money and exploitation (of Kirby) to revitalize her love for her husband.
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Lastly, there is Wendy’s situation, where she has to decide whether or not she wants to stay married to the father of her children. Furthermore, she needs to focus on her beloved movie project in order for it to become a success. As I have pointed out in the section about social status, Wendy’s relationship with Shane is far from idyllic. Wendy was convinced that her mother had been trying to give her “the unspoken message that she mustn’t end up like her—a housewife—and it was a mistake to depend on a man” (Bushnell 2005: 169). Wendy had always insisted that what they had was a new and modern type of marriage, ‘the marriage of the future’. She was the provider, and Shane was the caregiver, who stayed at home with the kids. “But in reality, it was nothing more than a reversal of a traditional marriage—and hadn’t there been times when she’d jokingly referred to Shane as the ‘perfect movie executive wife’”(Bushnell 2005: 174). When Shane decides to move out the first time, he does so because he wants to teach Wendy the lesson that without him everything would fall apart, and with him he takes 200,000 dollars from their joint account for living expenses. This is more than Wendy can handle, because he chose to leave her and the kids. Because it was his decision Wendy is angry because Shane still feels that she should support him financially. What is more, Wendy is not used to having to take care of her career and the kids at the same time, so everything soon becomes a mess when Shane is not there anymore.
During their time apart, Wendy confides in the colleague, Selden Rose. Selden being a man, Wendy concludes, might be to her advantage, because he might have some insight as to how the male brain functions, and thereby possibly give her some clues as to why Shane is acting like he is. Therefore, she opens up to him telling him that it looks like Shane is divorcing her, and she does not understand any of it. Selden tells her that even though it might be hard she has to make a decision and stick to it no matter what. “No matter how bad you feel, even if he wants to come back, and he will, you stick to your decision. Once someone has betrayed you, they’ll always betray you again” (Bushnell 2005: 191). Unfortunately, Wendy does not listen to Selden’s advice, and lets Shane back in, only to find out that he has left once again, but this time he has taken the kids with him, when she returns from a long and important business trip. Wendy needs to follow Selden’s advice, and figure out who to be. Just like in the business world, where she has to be tough in order to be taken seriously, she also needs to show Shane who is in charge. She needs to pull
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herself together, and get the courage to leave him once and for all, especially now that she knows that he never loved her at all. Even though it is a tough decision, to go from being married for over a decade, like Selden says, they practically grew up together, to taking the step to call it a day; she still has to make the decision. It is hard for Wendy, because she has been able to have her career because she has had a man at home. If Shane had not been a full-time-dad, then her kids would have been brought up purely by nannies.
During the divorce period, Wendy lets herself enjoy some time off, when she meets Selden, who comes in every Sunday morning to eat breakfast at the hotel where Wendy is staying. She tells him that she and Shane are no longer living together, and that they are now in the middle of a divorce. Selden is sorry for Wendy, but pleased for himself, because now he can ask her out on a date, which he does and she accepts. Their relationship turns out to be good for both of them, and Wendy invites both Shane and Selden to come to the premiere of her movie. She tells Shane that they all have to get along, now that she is seeing another man. What is more, Wendy tells her friends the big news, that even though Selden did not think he could have children, Wendy is in fact now pregnant with his child. On the work front, Wendy is still a success, her latest movie won two Oscars, and the premier of her life project, the movie Ragged Pilgrims is a success. So, who knows what will happen when Victor Matrick, the CEO of Splatch-Verner, which owns Parador Pictures, decides to retire. Wendy might be interested in taking his place, or maybe, being with a man who understands and values her will-power and her commitment to her work is enough for her.
The main thing to conclude from this analysis of social belonging is the importance of being true to yourself during the process. The characters have to figure out for themselves who they would like to be, how they would like to act, and what to do in complicated situations. Even though people living in postmodern societies have to choose everything from small unimportant everyday things, they are also faced with big decisions that will change their lives. Therefore, in a society, where there are no correct answers, it is important to stick to what one believes in, in order to make the right decision.
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As I have mentioned before, Victoria illustrates the need to believe in the choices one makes, and not just rely on your friends’ lifestyles to confirm these choices. As Gibbins and Reimer mention, the ability to be absolutely at peace with your choices and unafraid to flaunt them is a defining trait of an expressivist identity. This requires that the tension between one’s apparent social identity (e.g. that one should be looking to marry) and one’s personal identity (e.g. enjoying personal freedom as a value) has to be resolved by the individual. For Victory this conflict has been resolved. She is defined socially as a woman for whom professional success outranks settling down with a man and having children. She is 100% content with her choices in life, and she is well aware that to have an international career, like she does, something has got to give, and in her case it is a family. She has accepted that having an international career means not being able to invest in binding relationships. She is not tormented by the possibility of having complete freedom of choice; she has actively chosen it and has come to terms with the consequences. Following Gibbins and Reimer’s line of thought, she has a very high regard of her own capacity and feels that her life is moving in the right direction, both on the professional and the social level. This expressivist lifestyle is what provokes among others the journalist to question her choices, seeing that she does not try to hide her choices; choices which to everyone else might seem alternative.
For comparison, Victoria (S) is the character who is farthest away from this kind of expressivist lifestyle, seeing that she basically is not able to choose and be content with her choices. Furthermore her choice is between living a singletini-lifestyle with no professional achievements, or getting into a serious relationship with a man and maturing professionally. It does not involve choosing to remain single and devoting herself to her career like Victory. Between these two extremes we find a character like Wendy, who is troubled in her marriage and who finds peace when she engages in a relationship with Selden, who is more understanding in relation to her professional career. So in the end Wendy achieves a better balance between her professional and her social life.
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Social Communication & the Chicks In this last part of my analysis, I will address the importance of clothes in terms of defining our identity. I will address the ways the different characters use clothes as markers of their self-identity.
First of all, the character Helen (GRoM) is not described in terms of her wardrobe anywhere in the novel. The only incident where her wardrobe seems to matter is one Sunday afternoon, where she meets Matthew’s daughters for the very first time. Helen is not prepared for the meeting, because Matthew had not told her that he would bring them by her place. “Helen rushed to the mirror and started tweaking at her frizzy Sundayafternoon hair, and wiping away at yesterday’s smudged mascara, which was encrusted beneath her eyes” (Fallon 2007: 87). Helen cannot believe how Matthew could do this to her, without phoning her first. “Had he no idea that adolescent girls valued appearances above all else?” (ibid). Helen’s awareness of how important appearance is in our contemporary society supports Featherstone’s claim that the performing self puts great emphasis on appearance, because of the awareness of its importance. Helen had planned what she was going to wear on their first meeting: “FCUK jeans, high brown boots from Aldo and the baby-blue Paul Frank hoodie which, she knew, was way too young for her but which she was hoping would make her look ‘cool’. Labels that adolescent girls had heard of and would admire”(ibid). Helen knows that the girls will be judging her, first of all on what she is wearing, because as I have argued in my theoretical part of this thesis, her clothes will function as social hieroglyphics, and therefore her clothes tell the girls something about the woman their father left their mother for.
With her chosen outfit for the first meeting, Helen wants to communicate to the girls that she is cool, she knows what is in fashion, she has got a good sense of style and most importantly, she wants to come across as someone young, someone they can hopefully relate to. Helen wants her chosen outfit to communicate ‘the big-sister approach’, and take the focus off the fact that she is the one who stole their dad from them. Furthermore, Helen also wants to communicate that she is one of them, she understands fashion, and the cool brands that these girls might want to have themselves soon. Therefore, she chooses labels that she knows they would have some sort of knowledge about. In terms of the
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connotational meaning, her clothes communicate brand awareness, and as I have pointed out before, hopefully coolness. If Helen had been prepared for the meeting, and she had worn the chosen outfit, she would have been able to play with different lifestyles, in this case the cool big-sister lifestyle. However, since Helen was taken by surprise and was not prepared to greet the girls in her chosen outfit, she does not succeed in making the good impression she wished for. Instead she has to wear an “age-appropriate fitted light-grey jumper, which she wore to work” (ibid). The youngest daughter, Claudia looks Helen up and down, and says “Do you know you’ve got your jumper on inside out?” (Fallon 2007: 88). By this comment, Helen knows that she has lost the first round; her clothes did not communicate coolness or big-sister.
In Lipstick Jungle the role of fashion takes on a different role as fashion in this novel is used as an indication of power. Since Wendy is working in a male dominated profession, she has to adjust her wardrobe to her profession. She “lived in black Armani separates, and she suddenly realized, hadn’t actually gone shopping in two years” (Bushnell 2005: 6). Wendy is thinking to herself that the fact that she has not gone shopping for two years is inexcusable, given that one of her best friends is Victory Ford. Wendy is wearing her Armani separates to Victory’s fashion show, and she feels that “she should have dressed up for this event, but she’d come from the office, and with her job and three children and a husband who was sometimes a child himself, something had to give, and that was fashion” (ibid). Nico’s wardrobe looks a lot like Wendy’s. Her wardrobe consists of suits with pants and skirts in various colors and fabrics, all made specially for her in Paris. The suit was deceptively simple, and its beauty lay in the fit, which was customtailored to skim her body perfectly. She had at least fifty of these suits (some with pants), in fabrics ranging from white silk to brown tweed, which meant that she could never gain a pound, but which also meant that she never had to worry about what to wear in the morning. Her sartorial consistency (…) gave her the peace of mind in knowing that every day was going to start out the same… (Bushnell 2005: 28).
As I have pointed out in my theoretical part, this issue has been investigated among others by Joanne Entwistle. In her book The Fashioned Body (2000), she suggests that specific situations demand clear codes of dress for men and women. She claims that it can be found particularly within “the older professions such as law, insurance and City finance”
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(Entwistle 2000: 16). Entwistle also comments on the gender boundary, which is clearly marked by enforcement of a skirt for women. Nico, as well as Wendy are clear examples of that, because of their chosen wardrobe.
This way of power dressing, as I have described previously, enables the women â€˜to steer a steady course through male dominated professionsâ€™, as Entwistle pointed out. Given that both women work in a male dominated environment, and the fact that they have to radiate authority and competence, they do not have time to care about which outfit to wear in the morning. They need to spend as little time as possible getting ready, and therefore they need to make sure that their wardrobes consist of practical pieces of clothing, and that they can mix and match without giving it much thought. In terms of communication oneâ€™s selfidentity through clothing, their outfits are a way of giving external form to narratives of self-identity, as Giddens has claimed. In terms of connotational meaning of their clothing, the associations connected to this kind of clothing in the western world are indeed power, confidence, prestige, wealth, will-power and respect.
The fact that they do wear Armani and French tailored suits and skirts, is not so much an issue, because in their profession it is expected of them to look presentable wherever they are. However, they have at one point made a conscious decision to buy clothes, which, according to both Zukin and Baudrillard, communicate value, because of its designer label or the fact that it is a tailored piece of clothing. Both women represent the company when they are out, and therefore they have to look good. Because they are part of the elite in each their field of work, they can afford to buy designer clothes, and furthermore, if they pay a little extra they will be sure that what they get looks good. In other words, they are not only buying a prestigious brand, what is more, they are using the brand to signal that they are rich and important enough to be able to wear Armani everyday.
Victory is a bit different than Wendy and Nico. She is her own boss, and therefore, she does not have to send out a message to any male bosses about being in control, or being good enough for the job. Being a fashion designer makes her style more vibrant, because she can take chances, and express herself through her clothing. Instead of having a boss to answer to, Victory has got the whole fashion world to answer to. She has to come up with
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ideas that will sell, and in a way she uses herself, and her friends (and occasionally their daughters) as walking billboards for her fashion line. One incident which stands out is where she uses her own fashion sense as a way of communicating something about herself to the world. Victory sews a pair of pants because she cannot get inspired to do this terms line of clothing. The next day she decides to seek out inspiration in the subway. A girl comments on her new pants, “I like your pants. Sequins during the day. That’s cool” (Bushnell 2005: 199). Victory was not sure the pants were any good, but by wearing her clothes out in public, she gets some sort of idea of what the public wants. Furthermore, she can express her artistic skills as well as her identity at the same time.
Victoria’s character (S) stands out from the characters in the other novels, because her fashion choices are very much based on acknowledgement. Unlike the two other novels, Singletini is filled with references to different designer names, contemporary fashion houses and other brand names. All the characters are being described by what they are wearing, in other words, which designer they are wearing. Before her interview at the advertising agency, where Kimmie works, Victoria compares how each of them looks. Kimmie was wearing “tight white Theory pants, a punk black motorcycle jacket, and an arm full of clanky silver bracelets. (…) She looked very hip, very cool, very artiste” (Trimble 2006: 51). Victoria thinks about what she is wearing, since she is in fact on her way to a job interview, and wants to make a good impression. She is “feeling okay with my upper half. I have on a lemon-colored vintage Versace blazer (another hand-me-down from Gwynn) and a pink satin ribbon tied in a floppy bow around my waist. But my bottom half? Terrible. I’m squished into my new torturously tight Seven jeans” (ibid). Victoria does not think that she can measure up when it comes to style and clothing in comparison with Kimmie. Kimmie’s clothing communicates, as Victoria points out, that she is hip, she is cool and very artiste, her clothes communicate that she belongs in an advertising firm.
Kimmie knows which pants to buy, and more importantly which brand. Her ‘Theory’ pants radiate value and social status, and as I pointed out in my theoretical section, “for a contemporary woman, identity may come less from the man whose arm she drapes than
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from the designer whose shoes she dons” (Scanlon 2005). In this case it is not shoes, but pants. Victoria is perfectly aware of that and the fact that she is wearing ‘Seven’ jeans is the problem. In an article about jeans and fashion in Slate magazine, Louisa Thomas (2005) writes about the secret language of jeans. Thomas elucidates on why some jeans are ranged higher on the social status rank than others. She argues that, “[w]hile it would seem that blue jeans should suggest a kind of populist casualness – (…) to those who can read the language of the back pocket, jeans are anything but democratic. Jeans have become fashion’s equivalent of a secret handshake” (Thomas 2005). According to Thomas’ article, the jeans brand ‘Seven’ appeared in 2000, and “they cost enough to seem special” (ibid). Thomas says that everyone from socialites, celebrities, college students, artists, etc. “were convinced that $130 (and up) was an acceptable price to pay for a pair of jeans” (ibid). However, Thomas concludes that today ‘Seven’ has become so mainstream that it is no longer hip. In short, the sign value of Victoria’s ‘Seven’ jeans is not very high, whereas Kimmie’s ‘Theory’ pants are more hip, and therefore would score higher on a ‘sociallyconstructed prestige value’ list.
Ever since Victoria was a little girl she has been dreaming of going shopping at Barneys. But before her job as a wingwoman, places like Barneys were completely out of her league, and she had to buy counterfeits of the real designer wear, in order to feel like she belonged. But as a wingwoman she “must always look and act fabulous. This means stepping up your wardrobe” (Trimble 2006: 65). Therefore, Victoria gets an extra $1,000 each month to pay for appearance related items. “A significant amount simply must be spent on clothing, hair and makeup. We have an image to uphold, so we encourage you to wear only the highest-end clothing from Saks, Neiman’s, Barneys, and other exclusive boutiques’” (ibid). Victoria is thrilled about the prospects of shopping at Barneys, and one of the first things she does is to walk right into Barneys and buy “the most amazing dress. A steamy-hot peach chiffon frock by Chloé. It has to be one of the happiest moments of my life. For the first time ever, I get to prance out of that store with my very own Barneys bag swinging from my fingertips” (Trimble 2006: 70). In other words, she can now walk outside, and everyone walking on the street will know that she can afford shopping at Barneys.
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Another occasion, where Victoria uses clothes to communicate her identity, or her aspirational identity is at a wedding. Victoria is invited to her high school boyfriend and ex-best friend’s wedding, and she needs to find a dress for the occasion. At Barneys she finds the one. “It’s by Miu Miu and it’s absolutely to die for with a literally to-die-for price. I don’t even want to think about it. I’m just going to close my eyes, hand over the card, and pray like hell it clears again. (After all, my ex-boyfriend’s wedding is no time to skimp, now is it?)” (Trimble 2006: 117). This way of shopping for a dress, deliberately going into Barneys and looking at designer dresses, which she knows will score high on the socially-constructed prestige value list, points out what role shopping plays in Victoria’s life. Victoria has neither a job nor a partner/husband to establish her in the social standing, which leaves her with shopping as the only way of signaling social meaning by buying clothes with high sign values. In other words, shopping for designer clothes is something she can control, since she knows about different brands, which ones communicate high sign value, and where to buy them, she knows how to express her aspirational identity through the right clothes and through the right brand.
On a concluding remark, I would like to highlight that the clothes the different characters wear in the novels support their actions. The power women wear the 21st century’s equivalent of a power suit, whereas the young college graduate Victoria is trying to figure out which style fits her self-identity best. Her life is a mess, but through her friends and society as well, she has gotten some sort of knowledge about what kind of clothes she should be striving for. Therefore, when she chooses to buy designer clothes she chooses the safe solution. In a way someone has already made the decision for her, because fashion is dictated by various prestigious fashion houses, and different labels are ranked based on their sign value. By shopping for designer goods, she gives out the impression that she is someone special, or someone prestigious.
Fashion also functions as a way for these women to project their power and their position in the business world. It supports their lifestyle choices in a way that it projects their choices to the rest of the world, because other people make judgments about them based on what they are wearing. Therefore, it is also extremely important for Helen to make a good
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first impression on Matthewâ€™s kids. She knows that they do not like her in the first place, but if she is going to have any hope of turning them around she has got to use other methods. The easiest one is to use fashion as a way to communicate to them that she is not that bad after all. The same goes for Victoria when she has to attend her ex-boyfriendâ€™s wedding. She needs the amazing designer dress in order to make the impression that she has made it, she has accomplished something that enables her to wear prestigious brands. She is not a looser. She needs to hide the fact that her life is a mess behind the fashionable dress, which does not indicate a messy lifestyle at all.
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Chick Lit: Realist or Escapist Entertainment? This discussion will summarize the main findings in my analysis, but it will also serve as a prelude to my concluding remarks. In the beginning of this thesis I proposed a research question, which said: “Chick lit is said to represent women’s lives in our contemporary society, but what kind of life is the modern day chick living according to contemporary popular fiction?” With this question in mind I wanted to investigate whether or not contemporary women’s fiction, also known as chick lit, could be considered as portraying contemporary women’s lives realistically or not. Furthermore, I wanted to investigate what kind of lives contemporary women are living according to various media output, such as contemporary fiction, television shows, etc.
Through my analysis, I have investigated four different aspects of social life in connection with contemporary women. My analysis has shown that chick lit can be categorized both as realistic and as escapist entertainment. Let me elaborate. First of all, the escapist traits can be found in the fact that the medium I am investigating is in fact fictional novels. The novel is a medium which is all about storytelling. What is more, storytelling’s main task is to tell a compelling story, and therefore some parts of a story might not be quite as realistic as others. However, in the case of chick lit, storytelling is also very much about using contemporary society, with its popular culture, as essential elements of each of the stories. The use of elements which are highly identifiable of our contemporary culture, make the chick lit stories seem more realistic. Identification with the characters is made much easier, when the reader can recognize social elements such as social settings and social problems within each story. Furthermore, the realistic traits of the genre are also visible in the way it portrays the universal problems women are faced with, and forced to deal with in contemporary society. The universal problems can range from one’s social status, one’s direction in life, one’s feeling of happiness or failure, etc. As Gibbins has claimed, our life is all about choices now. To put it differently, in our consumer society we have no choice but to choose. Our freedom to choose ranges from everyday life decisions, whether or not we want to stay single or get married, to the consumer goods we choose to purchase. As individuals we want to fit in, but we also want to distinguish ourselves from others. Therefore, the freedom of choice becomes an essential part of our lives. Our choices shape and develop our identity all through life. However, as I have pointed out before, this was - 96 -
not the case in previous generations of women. They “made their barter as much around the need for male protection and financial help as affection” (Edwards 2000).
Another important trait in chick lit is the fact that the genre does not take itself too seriously. Humor is a very big part of the genre, and the authors communicate everyday life situations in such a way that they stand out in a humorous light, even though the actual situation, if it happened to a person, would be quite humiliating. In other words, the authors, and thereby their female characters are able to deal with everyday situations in humorous ways, which most often does not leave the characters looking like a complete fool. But, if a character should end up in an awkward situation, she will, as my analysis has shown, have her adopted family to help her out. This way of writing about important social issues can also be a message that it is not the end of the world if the women make some bad decisions, they can always make better ones the next time they are faced with a problem.
Today’s women have to worry about fitting in, in a society that still idealizes coupledom, and thinks that there must be something wrong with you if you cannot find a proper man to settle down with before reaching a certain age. As my analysis showed, the characters, who were not paired off, were faced with prejudice comments from their parents and some of their friends, who were already in a serious relationship. What their parents and friends in pairs were reacting to is what Victory (LJ) points out, when she tries to get across to the young female reporter: that there is more to life than being married and having children. The social expectations weigh especially high on the characters Victoria (S) and Helen (GRoM), because they have not been able to live up to the social norms. In Victoria’s case, it is however, debatable whether or not it is society that puts this kind of pressure on her. She is only twenty-five years old, and should have at least a couple of years left before settling down, without standing out from the norms too much.
Society has come a long way in accepting new ways of life, and during the past decade it has also become more aware of the importance of the demographic group of people, that single women make up. However, it still has not accepted single people, and their choices to remain single, on equal terms with people who choose to get married or live in lasting
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serious relationships. This is also pointed out by Mabry (2006), who argues that chick lit, movies, and television programs have come a long way in providing new visions of women’s voices. However, seen from a cultural point of view society still has a long way to go before women have achieved the same rights as their male counterparts.
As a genre chick lit can be seen as a mouthpiece for contemporary Western, well-educated women, presenting alternative ways to live one’s life and not to settle for the second best, or settle too soon. Even though chick lit novels almost always end happily, they do not use the typical Hollywood ending of happy ever after, however there is the indication that the chick lit heroine is content with her life, and that she might have opened up for the possibility of a relationship that might prove to be the ‘one’. But nothing is definitive. Contrary to what many literary critics claim, chick lit does not only concentrate on finding Mr. Right, and the perfect pair of Manolo Blahnik shoes. As a genre, chick lit has a very broad selection of topics to choose from – topics of interest to modern day women. The topics can be, as we have seen in the three novels I have chosen for my analysis, ‘how to fit in a family with a high powering career?’, ‘how to navigate life now that your friends are moving in another direction?’, ‘how to figure out what one really wants in life, in terms of a career, in terms of a relationship, etc.?’ These topics would not have been important if women had not had the advances such as education, political power, individual freedom, etc. In terms of social status, women now benefit from these advances. Today it is much more acceptable to leave a marriage that is not working out, than was the case for earlier generations. There is a reason that the church now has the option to exclude the ‘for as long as you both shall live’ part of the wedding vow. Today’s society is much more open to change, and even though we might strive for the romantic ideal of a Mr. and Mrs. Right, it does not mean that we can only have one Mr. or Mrs. Right in our lifetime.
As my analysis confirmed, the theoretical considerations were evident in the selection of chick lit novels I have used in my analysis. I see my selection as being very representative for the chick lit genre, so similar social issues can be found in the majority of chick lit out there. Each of the chick lit novels has dealt with the important issue of self-identity, which is also an indication that at least on a thematic level, chick lit novels do mirror reality. Each of the main characters has had to make some important choices in order to keep their
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narrative of the self going. They were all in a stage of their lives where they had to make important decisions in order to get on with their lives. In order to move forward, and keep the narrative going, they had to find the strength to make these important decisions, and find out what kind of person they would like to be. My analysis has shown the level of social issues being debated in each of the novels, so as a cultural piece of contemporary society, the genre does play an important role.
As a genre which is marketed to women of all ages, its psychological themes are very important in terms of understanding the development women have gone through and are still struggling with in our contemporary society. From a cultural point of view, it is of great importance that women have now got a genre which is purely marketed to them as a group, without it being solely about finding a knight in shining armor, but which treats issues very contemporary and very much part of women’s everyday life. The genre is not afraid to deal with taboo issues such as terminal illness, death, how to find love again after the loss of a loved one, infidelity, abortion and so on. The core theme in each novel is how to navigate our contemporary society as a woman, with all the different kinds of choices she has to take a position on. As chick lit author Jennifer Weiner argues, chick lit might be regarded as a roadmap for today’s women. In other words, what is most apparent about the phenomenon is the wide range of social topics, which it has touched upon since it emerged a little over a decade ago.
On a whole chick lit has established itself as a possible new version of the novel of manners, that is, as a realistic genre focusing on the “customs, conversation, and ways of thinking and valuing of a particular social class” (Abrams, 1999: 192). This is also established by Harzewski (2006), who concludes that “Chick lit has monumentally changed the representation of single woman in literature by portraying not figures of pity, illness, or derisions, but at cast of funny, usually capable women not looking to settle” (Harzewski 2006: vi). Harzewski also points out, and the above discussion illustrates, how chick lit has woven together several literary and popular forms to become, as Harzewski calls it, “a full fledged literary category” (Harzewski 2006: vi).
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Conclusion When I set out to write my thesis, I wanted to take a different approach to the literary phenomenon chick lit, because I felt that within the genre there was “an overlooked sociocultural commentary” (Harzewski 2006: viii), which had not been investigated properly within the academic circles. I wanted to explore contemporary women’s fiction from a cultural as well as a social point of view, in order to investigate whether or not chick lit has anything to offer in terms of an understanding of contemporary culture.
I wanted to illustrate the important societal shift that we have witnessed over the past decade, where single women, whether or not it is by choice, or because they ended a marriage and is now consequently single again, have become important factors in our social and cultural life. Television, contemporary women’s fiction, magazines etc. have all showed us that women have embraced singlehood, as Edwards argues, “in some ways, [as] a logical result of the expanding possibilities for women brought on by the women’s movement” (Edwards 2000). However, it is also important to keep in mind that the social shift also includes contemporary women in general. The new woman is a woman who is trying to figure out how to get the most out of life, now that all these possibilities are out there for her to explore. In other words, contemporary media have provided “spaces for the expression of women’s experiences and desires, suggesting possibilities for women outside the role of girlfriend, wife, or mother” (Mabry 2006: 205).
Eleven years ago, when Helen Fielding’s novel Bridget Jones’s Diary was published, it showed the world that at thirty, Bridget is single and childless and free to enjoy herself and the kind of life she is leading. Bridget showed the world that there was a new kind of woman in town, and she was not going to leave any time soon. In other words, this new kind of woman, as we have seen throughout my analysis, is very much a “product of modernity in that she has benefited from those institutions (education) which have loosened the ties of tradition and community for women, making it possible for them to be disembedded and relocated to the city to earn an independent living without shame or danger” (McRobbie 2004: 11). What my analysis and discussion have showed is a new kind of powerful woman, who is independent in the way that she can take care of herself without having to rely on a man. However, this new kind of contemporary woman is also - 100 -
struggling to make sense of the world around her, and struggling because she is never certain that she has made the right choice for herself.
My analysis pointed out that chick lit is more than shoe fetishism and shopping crazes; and that a closer look at the genre shows that it deals with very important issues in our contemporary culture. However, chick litâ€™s preoccupation with aspects such as shopping and fashion also points to the fact that consumerism is a very big part of our mass culture, and consequently also in chick lit. What is more, shopping and fashion have always been associated with the feminine universe. Therefore, as my analysis has shown, on a thematic level chick lit is very much representative of the developments that are going on our society right now. Chick lit as a genre, uses these issues â€“ issues of interest to women and their contemporary lives â€“ and treats them in a humors way, as to illustrate that even though identity is unstable and fragile, in our contemporary society, and therefore also subjected to anxieties and uncertainty, life is not impossible to navigate. In order to navigate contemporary life, you need to believe in the decisions you make, and if you made the wrong decision there is always time to change it. There is always time to try on a new lifestyle.
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Bibliography Primary Literature: Bushnell, Candace (2005). Lipstick Jungle. London: Abacus Fallon, Jane (2007). Getting Rid of Matthew. London: Penguin Fielding, Helen (2001). Bridget Jones’s Diary. London: Picador Trimble, Amanda (2006). Singletini. London: Little black dress
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Summary This thesis deals with how contemporary women’s fiction portrays the modern day woman. I have explored the literary genre chick lit from a cultural as well as a social point of view. My main goal was to investigate the literary phenomenon in terms of what I believed was an overlooked source of socio-cultural commentary. Therefore, I selected three different chick lit novels, which are all representative of the genre. I chose the latest novel by one of the founding mothers of chick lit, namely Candace Bushnell’s Lipstick Jungle (2005). Furthermore, I chose two debut novels, Getting Rid of Matthew (2007) by British author Jane Fallon and Singletini (2006) by American author Amanda Trimble.
I wanted to investigate the following question: Chick lit is said to represent women’s lives in our contemporary society, but what kind of life is the modern day chick living according to contemporary popular fiction? With this question in mind I wanted to find out whether or not contemporary women’s fiction could be considered as portraying contemporary women’s lives realistically or not. I wanted my research object to represent the different stages in life that the new contemporary woman is going through in order to get a broader perspective on the subject. Therefore, I picked Trimble’s novel, because the female heroine is in her mid twenties and struggling to make sense of the world around her after she and her friends have graduated from college. Secondly, I chose Fallon’s novel, because her main character is in her late thirties, and still trying to cope with all the possible lifestyle choices out there. Finally, Bushnell’s characters are all in their forties, one of them still single and the other two struggling to save their marriages.
During my analysis, I looked into different social aspects, which are all very much part of our contemporary culture. I explored the following topics: social status, social relations, social belonging and social communication. In the theoretical as well as the analytical sections about social status, I looked into aspects of singleness and coupledom in our culture, and how social factors can have an effect on one’s social status. In other words, I explored the current thoughts about being single by choice as opposed to being married. In my theoretical section, I used Bridget Jones’s Diary (1996) by Helen Fielding, as an example of the cultural shift we have witnessed over the past decade in terms of the social possibilities women now have because of their social advances. With these advances came - 107 -
choices and struggles about whether or not one has made the right choice in staying single or getting married. As my analysis has shown, there are struggles connected to both choices. In my sections about social relations, I looked into the notion that friendship networks have become central in our everyday lives, because of the development which have caused women to postpone or even reject marriage and having children. Because of this development, friends have become a very essential part of their everyday life and friendship networks make a person feel connected to other people.
In relation to social belonging, I looked at the postmodern idea of self-identity. I have among others used Anthony Giddens’ theories about self-identity and ‘keeping a narrative going’, in order to analyze how the women in the three novels chose to deal with their identity creation. My analysis showed that because the postmodern self is unstable and constantly subjected to different choices, life can become quite problematic. What is more, the postmodern self needs to make a choice, regardless of the situation it is in, and the most important thing is to be content with the decision, and stick to it. Lastly, as a way to expand my theoretical speculations about the postmodern self, I included another important aspect of how one can project one’s chosen lifestyle to others, namely fashion. I investigated the different ways fashion can be used as communication, because as Giddens argues, consumerism is one of the clearest ways we develop and project a lifestyle. The different characters use clothes to underline their position in the world, whether it is a powerful position, or an aspirational position. In other words, in my analysis I analyzed two different ways of using fashion as communication; firstly how fashion can be used to ‘dress for success’ and secondly, how fashion can be used as ‘dress for acknowledgement’.
My analysis showed that chick lit as a genre has a lot to offer in terms of an understanding of what the new contemporary woman is going through in terms of navigating contemporary life. The genre thematizes different problems in relation to being a woman in our contemporary society; it deals with all the different choices a woman has to make on an everyday basis, in order keep her narrative going. What is more, the genre does so with a humorous twist, which makes it easier to cope with the more serious topics as well. So the answer to my research question is that chick lit can be seen as representing women’s lives based on the variety of different topics discussed within the genre.
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