Chick Lit

What do movies like Mean Girls (2004), Legally Blonde (2001), Mamma Mia (2008), Pretty Woman (1990), The Princess Diaries (2001) and even Twilight (2008) all have in common? All these movies are commonly referred to as 'chick flicks'. Chick flicks are movies typically focused on love, romance, relationships, and oftentimes, womanhood. As the names of many popular chick flicks suggest (Mean Girls, Pretty Woman, Legally Blonde, The Princess Diaries, etc.), these movies are marketed toward a young female audience. 

Chick Lit Chick Lit

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    Chick Lit Female Protagonist Chick Lit, Characteristics, StudySmarter

    Fig. 1 - Protagonist of Legally Blonde: The Musical


    Well, for all those who enjoy a good chick flick, did you know that there is an identical genre that exists in literature? You guessed it- it's called 'chick-lit'! However, is the chick-lit genre an accurate representation of womanhood, or are they based on existing traditional stereotypes about women? Let's look at the meaning, characteristics and examples of a genre that is widely enjoyed, stereotyped and criticised.

    Chick-lit meaning

    The term 'chick' is slang used to refer to 'young women' whereas the word 'lit' is the short version of 'literature'.


    Chick-lit is a literary genre that consists of fiction that is typically written by female authors, centred around female protagonists, and marketed toward young women. The genre typically focuses on issues around modern womanhood, such as coming of age, female friendship circles, family dramas, workplace struggles, issues of appearance and body image, and most often, romantic entanglements with men. Simply stated, it is fiction by women, for women, about women.1


    The protagonists of chick lits mirror the genre's target demographic by featuring a young attractive (or soon to be turned attractive by a dramatic makeover scene) working woman in her 20s or 30s. Usually, the story follows the personal, or sometimes, professional issues experienced by these women in a funny, lighthearted and sort of relatable way. The majority are resolved with a happy ending.

    It’s about women growing up and figuring out who they are and what they need versus what they think they want.2

    Lad-lit is a literary genre consisting of male-authored stories that focus on the trials and tribulations experienced by young boys during their progress to manhood. The term 'lad-lit' was coined in Britain in the 1990s, surprisingly before the term 'chick-lit' was popularised, as a marketing strategy to broaden the male readership. However, once chick-lit rose as a category targeting an existing large young female readership, the genre lad-lit was soon forgotten.

    Chick-lit genre

    Chick-lit novels have been often criticised for generalising the experience of womanhood by having an extremely cliched and two-dimensional approach to presenting women, their issues and interests. This argument of chick-lit generalising the female experience is because the genre has an extremely standardised set of characteristics and themes that are found in most, if not all, chick-lit novels.3

    Female protagonist

    The protagonist of chick-lit novels says a lot about the demographic that this genre is marketed towards. The chick-lit heroine is usually an attractive young working woman in her 20s. She is depicted as a strong, driven, independent, assertive woman. From the beginning of the story itself, the protagonist is usually working towards achieving something and is passionate about her dreams and career aspirations.


    Even though the protagonist may have certain flaws, overall they are likeable. This is crucial as it allows the reader to root for the protagonist.


    In The Princess Diaries series (2000-2015) by Meg Cabot (1967-present), although Mia Thermopolis is unexpectedly crowned as the Princess of Genovia, her clumsy, awkward and anxious personality likens her story to that of any relatable teenager. However, in classic chick-lit fashion, Mia undergoes a physical, as well as emotional 'makeover' in the novel, where she learns how to be glamorous, graceful and more 'princess-like'.

    Urban setting

    Most chick-lit novels are set in urban locations to add to the heroine's exciting, fast-paced and often glamorous lifestyle.


    Often, the protagonist struggles with modern-day issues that can only occur in urban cities. Many plots follow a protagonist, oftentimes from the countryside, who finds herself lost and confused in a new foreign city, struggling to adapt to the big-city life. By the end of the novel, the protagonist usually ends up falling in love with the city and finding her 'true' independent, assertive and confident self in the process.


    I Heart New York (2009) by Lindsey Kelk (1980-present) is the story of a girl reinventing herself in New York City after her breakup in London.

    Consumerism

    Consumerism is a big part of most chick-lit novels, where either the protagonist or those around her are obsessed with fashion, shopping and leading an extravagant and glamorous lifestyle.


    In The Shopaholic (2000-2019) series by Sophie Kinsella (1970-present), the protagonist Rebecca Bloomwood has a shopping addiction where she is continuously spending on new clothes, shoes and beauty products, despite being in debt.

    A man will never love you or treat you as well as a store. If a man doesn’t fit, you can’t exchange him seven days later for a gorgeous cashmere sweater.


    - Sophie Kinsella, The Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic (2000)

    Workplace struggles

    Most heroines in chick-lit novels are extremely driven and passionate about their career aspirations. They are either working towards a certain 'dream job' or are aiming to succeed and assert themselves in their existing workplace.


    Somewhere in the novel, the protagonist faces setbacks in their professional life that they must overcome. Many stories begin with heroines stuck in dead-end jobs or in workplaces where they face evil bosses or coworkers who often mistreat them or fail to acknowledge them.


    Usually, the jobs shown in chick-lits are also glamorous and fast-paced, such as jobs in fashion, journalism, publishing and advertising.


    In The Devil Wears Prada (2003) by Lauren Weisberger (1997-present), the protagonist Andrea Sachs scores an extremely sought-after job at a fashion magazine, where she is appointed as a personal assistant to the editor-in-chief, Miranda Priestly. Throughout the novel, Andrea struggles to fit into the fast-paced glamorous life that comes with her new job, and is constantly ridiculed by her boss and coworkers for her clumsiness and poor fashion choices. Her boss, Miranda, who is an arrogant and ruthless megalomaniac, is the main antagonist of the novel.


    Romance

    Love, marriage, dating, sex and heartbreak are all predominant themes in the chick-lit genre. Hence, chick-lit novels always involve a romantic relationship, at least as a subplot.


    At some point, the heroine is usually involved with an unsuitable romantic partner who does not deserve her, which of course, she fails to realise initially. By the end of the story, she either realises she is better off without him or finds a partner who treats her right.


    'Sex and the City' started as a newspaper column in The New York Observer from 1994 to 1996 where writer Candance Bushnell (1958-present) chronicled the many horrific dating disasters in her and her friends' lives, who were all single women dating in their 30s. The column included their strange yet hilarious encounters with men and became so popular that an anthology of Bushnell's columns was published as the book Sex and the City in 1996.

    Some people are settling down, some people are settling and some people refuse to settle for anything less than butterflies.


    - Candace Bushnell, Sex and the City (1996)

    Chick Lit Friends in Chick Lit, Genre Characteristics, StudySmarter

    Fig.2 - The main characters of the TV adaptation of Sex and the City

    Friends and family

    Other than romantic relationships, chick-lits also involve female friendship circles. Usually, the female protagonist has a best friend or a group of friends (a clique) who unconditionally support her throughout the novel. Oftentimes, friendship rivalries, one-upmanship and backstabbing between the protagonist and her friend(s) become causes of tension in the novel. In most cases, however, these are resolved by the end of the novel to reinforce the power of female friendship.


    Similarly, family drama also pervades many chick-lit novels. The protagonist is sometimes weighed down by the needs and expectations of her family or may have parents that are overbearing and interfering. However, most chick-lit novels believe in the strength and unity of family and end with the family back in harmony.


    The Pretty Little Liars (2006 - 2013) series by Sara Shepard (1977-present) follows a group of four teenage girls after the leader of their clique, Alison DiLaurentis mysteriously disappears, and the four remaining girls begin receiving threatening messages from someone who identifies as 'A'. The strong bond between the teenage girls is due to them keeping each other's darkest secrets and lying to protect each other.


    Humour

    Lighthearted humour is an essential part of most chick-lit novels.

    Happy endings

    The heroine finally lands her 'dream job'. She gets married to the man of her dreams. She is happy, successful, beautiful and in love. Without fail, all chick-lit novels give their readers a happy ending, usually with a moral or life lesson.

    Chick-lit plot structure

    Much like any other genre, a chick-lit book also follows the traditional plot structure of a novel. Let's divide the plotline of a classic chick-lit into the five plot points offered by Freytag's Pyramid.


    Freytag's Pyramid: A five-act plot structure devised by German novelist Gustav Freytag (1816-1895) which states that every narrative follows the following sequence in its plot: Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action and Resolution.

    Exposition

    This is where the readers are introduced to their protagonist and given a brief look at her general life, habits and personality. In many chick-lit novels, the protagonist begins with either a negative outlook toward life or is placed in an unsatisfactory job or relationship that they must get out of.


    This is also the part where the readers are introduced to the protagonist's dreams, aspirations and goals. What does she wish to achieve in life? What does she want from the world? This could refer to outer needs, such as career goals, or subconscious needs, such as finding love or acceptance.

    Rising action

    This is usually where things get interesting.


    An inciting incident occurs that prompts the heroine to take action. This could be any new or unforeseen circumstance that breaks the routine established in the exposition. For instance, if there is a love interest (which there usually should be), this is where we are introduced to them.


    New obstacles are thrown in our protagonist's path, which gradually become more and more intense. At first, the protagonist seems to be overcoming them, and there is a moment where the protagonist experiences initial successes and believes that she has achieved her goals. She gets the job she always wanted. Her love interest seems to like her back.


    However, as more obstacles are thrown her way, the stakes increase and these obstacles begin to threaten the protagonist's needs. The reader is made aware of the fact that if the protagonist loses to these obstacles now, everything they have worked for till this point would be hopelessly lost.

    Climax

    The worst happens. The protagonist loses everything. She gets fired from her job. Her love interest doesn't want her anymore. Everything seems to have fallen apart. The protagonist is ready to give up.


    However, this teaches the protagonist a lesson. The protagonist knows what she has been doing wrong, so she does something extreme and unexpected to make it right. This could be taking a big risk, confessing her feelings or just facing her demons.


    By now the protagonist has changed. Maybe she has realised that she does not want the same things she wanted before.

    Falling action

    Whether or not the protagonist achieves whatever she initially wanted, she has accepted the current situation as the best-case scenario. A new normal is established, one that is more stable and certain (unless there's a sequel!) and things fall back into place again.

    Resolution

    The readers finally get to see the protagonist celebrate the happy ending they have always deserved.

    Chick-lit examples

    Now that we have discussed the characteristics and plot structure of the chick-lit genre, here are two classic examples that have all the makings of a true chick-lit novel.

    Bridget Jones's Diary (1996) by Helen Fielding

    Helen Fielding's (1958-present) Bridget Jones Diary is regarded as the first-ever chick-lit book and is credited for introducing the chick-lit genre to the literary scene5. Written in the form of a personal diary (another recurring chick-lit trope), the plotline takes readers through the exciting yet turbulent love life of Bridget Jones, a career-focused thirty-year-old woman who is obsessed with losing weight and finding love.

    Each chapter in the novel is presented in the form of a new diary entry which begins with an update on Bridget's weight, alcohol consumption, cigarettes smoked and comments on her dating life. Through the course of the novel, Bridget is involved in two romantic relationships. The first is with her charming, yet ultimately unfaithful boss Daniel Cleaver. The second is with Mark Darcy, a recently-divorced lawyer who she initially dislikes but eventually falls in love with.


    There are many parallels noticeable between Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones Diary and Jane Austen's (1775-1817) Pride and Prejudice (1813). Bridget Jones' character and relationship with Mark Darcy, vaguely mirrors the character of Jane Austen's Elizabeth Bennet and her relationship with Fitzwilliam Darcy. While Bridget Jones does not feel the same economic pressure to get married as Elizabeth, she feels the societal pressure of being a thirty-year-old single woman. Throughout the course of the novel, both women become aware of their flaws, even if that means going through unworthy suitors such as Wickham and Daniel. Both women receive a much-deserved happy ending, and here comes the most blatant parallel, with men that share the last name 'Darcy'!


    It appears as though Fielding's Bridget Jones Diary is simply a modernisation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. This goes to show that even though Austen's book doesn't fall within the chick-lit genre, the love for chick-lit's characters, storylines and genre tropes dates back to the 1800s.

    Can You Keep a Secret (2003) by Sophie Kinsella

    Sophie Kinsella is a bestselling chick-lit author, best known for writing the Shopaholic series which consists of 10 books chronicling the life and experiences of Rebecca Bloomwood, a woman with a shopping addiction.


    Can You Keep a Secret (2003) was Sophie Kinsella's first standalone novel. It is about a young woman called Emma Corrigan who finds herself stuck on a turbulent plane. Believing she is about to die, she mistakenly blurts out her deepest, darkest, most humiliating secrets to a handsome stranger sitting beside her on the plane. She survives the flight, only to find out that the man she confessed her secrets to is the CEO of the new multi-national cola company that she just started working for.


    Chick-Lit - Key takeaways

    • Chick-lit is a literary genre that consists of fiction that is typically written by female authors, centred around female protagonists, and marketed toward young women.
    • Here are the characteristics of the chick-lit genre:
      • Female Protagonist
      • Urban Setting
      • Workplace struggles
      • Consumerism
      • Romance
      • Friends and Family
      • Humour
      • Happy Endings
    • The plotline of a chick-lit novel can be divided into the five-point plot structure offered by Freytag's Pyramid- Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action and Resolution.
    • Classic examples of chick-lit novels include:
      • Bridget Jones's Diary (1996) by Helen Fielding

      • Can You Keep a Secret (2003) by Sophie Kinsella

    • Despite its commercial success, both the chick-lit genre and the term face criticism for being trashy, stereotypical and sexist.



    References
    1. Yingru Lu. Chick Lit: Themes and Studies. 2014
    2. Farrin Jacobs and Sarah Mlynowski. See Jane Write: A Girl's Guide to Writing Chick Lit. 2006
    3. Cathy Yardley. Will Write for Shoes: How to Write a Chick Lit Novel. 2006
    4. Fig.1 - Legally Blonde The Musical (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Legally_Blonde_The_Musical_(8008143258).jpg) by Eva Rinaldi is licensed by Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/)
    5. Fig. 2 - Sex and the City (https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b7/Sex_and_the_City_.jpg) by Martamenchini is licensed by Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Chick Lit

    What are chick-lit books?

    Chick-lit books are works of fiction that are typically written by female authors, centred around female protagonists, and marketed toward young women.

    What is the purpose of chick-lit?

    The purpose of chick-lit is to create stories based on issues around modern womanhood, such as coming of age, female friendship circles, family dramas, workplace struggles, issues of appearance and body image, and most often, romantic entanglements with men.

    How to structure a chick-lit novel?

    The structure of a chick-lit novel can be divided into the five-point plot structure offered by Freytag's Pyramid- Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action and Resolution. 

    What are some examples of chick-lit books?

    Classic examples of chick-lit novels include:

    • Bridget Jones's Diary (1996) by Helen Fielding

    • Can You Keep a Secret (2003) by Sophie Kinsella 

    Why is it called chick-lit?

    The term 'chick' is slang used to refer to 'young women' whereas the word 'lit' is the short version of 'literature'. Hence, the genre is called 'chick-lit' as it is literature written about young women for young women. 

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