For reasons largely to do with badly written press releases and an unfortunate confluence of unread books, I have spent the past ten days largely reading chick lit. Or, sometimes, not exactly chick lit, but marginally-more-upmarket-without-aiming-at-literary books about women’s lives and failing marriages and midlife crises. And it was a mildly shading to monumentally depressing experience. To be fair, my mental equilibrium is somewhat fragile at the moment, but even so I felt some of the evident phenomena – or rather, my responses to the phenomena – were narcisstically worth exploring.
To be clear, the issues of finding fulfilment and/or a satisfactory partner whilst having a job and possibly parenting (or maybe wanting to parent) and trying to find some kind of creative outlet are real and legitimate concerns, and they dominate the lives of a large number of people. (I say ‘people’ rather than ‘women’ partly because I feel the genderisation of these concerns in these novels is problematic and I want to call it out, and partly because I think male experience is differently constructed both in life and in fiction. If anyone knows of any novels dealing with these concerns from a non-binary perspective, I would be very interested in reading them, although I imagine such literature would be blessedly free from the clichés dogging post-Bridget-Jones ‘women’s fiction’.) I’m absolutely not trying to belittle the importance of these life experiences and reflecting them in art.
- Some of the representations of these issues are damaging and depressing.
- I found them a really fucking bleak portrait of how my life might turn out, in ways that my previous milieu and lifestyle shielded me from.
Let’s start with A, shall we?
Let it be said now with my professional-reviewer hat on that some of the chick lit was TERRIBLE. Badly written, badly characterised, and with an alarming tendency for the male ‘hero’ to be emotionally irresponsible, immature, inconsiderate, self-righteous, and to have these traits represented as either a) the result of childhood trauma and thus infinitely forgivable or b) an inevitable result of his masculinity. I can’t quite decide which annoys me more. The underlying implication that nobody (male) can ever be expected to take responsibility for how they treat others, or the idea that every woman should as a matter of course mother and shelter a male partner because they cannot ever be expected to emotionally mature and be held accountable for their choices or behaviours. Urgh. Whilst I have every sympathy with people who’ve had traumatic experiences – I’m not short on them myself – I do believe there comes a point at which you might legitimately be expected to have Owned Your Shit, developed self-awareness and stopped simply replicating damaging behaviours that harm your relationships and godhelpme your children. Notably, that point comes well before your forty-third birthday. In fact there’s a substantial argument that it should come before you go about having children you’re likely to walk out on when your demons come out to play.
There’s a wonderful scene in Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Casting Off – which is a bloody good novel, by the way, I wholeheartedly recommend the Cazalet Chronicles to anyone into family dramas or wartime shizzle – where Clary introduces her difficult boss/lover Noel to her cousin Polly. It all goes to shit, and Clary’s friend Archie asks Polly later what he’s like. ‘Everything that he is,’ Polly explains, ‘…is about himself.’ He had a difficult childhood, with much adult responsibility too young, ‘but it’s like he’s never stopped having one. He wears poor Clary out.’ Not only does this precisely nail a particular kind of demanding asshole, but it is also very clearly presented as NOT AN ADMIRABLE MODEL. He fucks Clary over and the other two pick up the pieces. And yet this is pretty much what we’re presented with as either a sympathetic narrator figure or the perfect man two women are warring over or…both. It’s bullshit, and it’s bullshit that serves nobody, simply perpetuating put-upon women and aggrieved self-righteous dudes unto eternity.
Worse, even when the characters talk, they don’t ever actually communicate. A particular egregious example: James/Jimmy is discussing his (recent, engaged-after-three-months wtf) relationship with Tessa with his ex-wife (don’t ask). He has three children with said ex-wife. She asks, pretty reasonably I suppose, whether Tessa wants children. He doesn’t know, he’s never asked (despite his hurry to get engaged/married/cohabiting), and Tessa has seven godchildren and three stepchildren already, so might reasonably be considered to be well supplied with demanding dwarfish figures. His response, however? ‘What woman in her late thirties doesn’t want children?’ (Early thirties, but, er, hi *waves arm*). He’s never discussed this with her, he is ‘too scared’ to do so now (of what, he doesn’t say) and the book ends with this still unresolved. They have a heart-to-heart about his shirking of responsibility, and the possibility of their future marriage breakdown because of not discussing things and working together, and he still doesn’t bring it up. Urgh. And yet people read these to escape from bad relationships or in search of models to construct them? WHAT ARE WE DOING TO THE WORLD?
(Also, ohgod. I can see that for some people weight gain could conceivably be a sign of dysfunctional eating triggered by stress or trauma, and losing weight might make them feel better and/or coincide with resolution of these issues. But really, honestly, can we NOT use ‘fat’ to symbolise ‘unhappy and unhealthy’ and ‘thin’/weight loss to represent ‘successful and happy’? Already, please?)
Whilst I’m on the subject, we could also do without all the policing of femininity. And the gender essentialism. Not to mention the bullshit assumptions. Femininity is not defined by a penchant for makeup or shoes. Domesticity is not the measure of a woman’s success, as a step-parent or a partner or anything else. Nor is childcare necessarily her responsibility simply because of her gender. Not all women are desperately waiting for a wedding ring. It is possible for two people to be in a relationship without one parenting the other, and where issues are discussed and decided on together. THIS BRAVE NEW WORLD OF LOVE AND EQUALITY IS OUT THERE, we just need to build it, by not buying this bullshit, in any sense.
Which moves me neatly onto B), above.
It had not really occurred to me until recently that any of this stuff might ever apply to my life. For the last, well, decades, I have been (/identified as…) young and creative and urban and often poly and dancing-friendly and striven to be surrounded by queers, goths and creative and interesting people of an alternative and/or hipster persuasion. First I was full-time pretty determinedly poly, and then I was with current partner but he was in a different city, so even when we became monogamous, I was still a free social if not sexual agent in London a lot of the time. Then we got engaged and I moved oop norf, and suddenly two queers in a loving relationship look pretty heteronormative, and I’m in a city with much less of a queer/poly/goth/creative map. As it happens, it’s been going really well, both in terms of my relationship (pretty blissful) and making friends (awesome people! Awesome queer, creative and interesting people! Who knew?!), but still, the influx of problematic relationship models made me pause. Was this actually me staring down the barrel of the future? Had I accidentally stepped through the looking glass into some horrific alternate universe where I was doomed to become an abandoned suburban housewife forever?
I’m well aware this is entirely irrational. I have (probably) a librarian job as well as a couple of writing ones and a book to write, so I’m hardly creatively unfulfilled or purposeless. I shared my concerns with all my best friends this weekend and their responses ranged from ‘you know that’s bollocks, right? Because first, this is you, and second, this is T’ to ‘that’s a perfectly normal anxiety having just ramped up the intimacy level’, with a fair bit of ‘I’m so glad things are going so well’ on the way. I don’t think it’s a secret from anyone that my brain is spectacularly good at anxieties, and to some extent what is happening here is that being actually happy and fulfilled in a whole bunch of ways simply means replacing the fear of never having or being worth something with the fear of losing it.
But at the same time, there is a fair bit of validity to the fact that a) these are concerns foisted on a lot of women because of the assumptions we as a culture make about sexuality and gender, and chicklit attempts to dignify/universalise/sell them, and b) they are both creating and responding to how we as a culture understand female aging. Both of which are fucked up. I hate that youth/femininity/female value are all held to be overlapping, and in mainstream culture women are constantly held to be in competition with one another. I know intellectually (and because I’ve read Foucault) that the best way to police people is to get them to police themselves, and so under neoliberal capitalism these books have a function, but it basically horrifies me.
It’s pretty weird, because I have always looked to books to expand my horizons and see myself and my potential and my options reflected and refracted, and suddenly a lot of books about the life stage I’m approaching seem to be contracting those things. IRL, the relevant anxieties haven’t kicked in yet. I look relatively young for my age, still pretty much in last flush of physical appeal  before visible aging kicks in (my joints are another matter), so I haven’t had to process any diminuation of the background attention that’s been a constant since my teens. I don’t worry (outside neurosis and us both being mentally interesting) about my partner leaving imminently, because we’re really good at communication, affection and sex, so it would seem foolish. And yet, somehow, I am sufficiently upset by a week of reading books that suggest my physical decline and his departure are inevitable or at least likely to be writing this. Cultural models matter. They matter because they’re how I and he and everyone else construct and understand our experiences, of relationships and aging and embodiment and all the rest, and it REALLY FUCKS ME OFF that what appears to be a large and popular swathe of books, including some whose press releases suggest they’re crossover literary, offer only limited and damaging options for women (and people!) to grow and exist and have relationships and careers after thirty-five. Fuck that shit. Thank $deity for all the brilliant authors, including my friends, out there writing better ones.
 I would like to point out that I’m talking about cultural assumption rather than personal experience here. I often find women older than me attractive, more often than I do significantly younger ones I think.
(Ftr, I spent the last three days reading Clare Lowdon’s Left of the Bang and Judy Bloom’s In the Unlikely Event, both of which are pretty good, actually.)