In search of feminist romance in Australian 'Chick Lit'
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In November 2005, Australian author Melanie La’Brooy published a defence of ‘chick lit’ in the Review section of Australia’s national newspaper, The Weekend Australian. La’Brooy responded to criticisms of the genre, particularly those made by prize winning authors Beryl Bainbridge and Doris Lessing. Bainbridge had asserted that people were wasting their time reading ‘chick lit’ while Lessing dismissed the genre’s authors for writing “instantly forgettable books.” La’Brooy referred to other critics who decried the genre for being antifeminist because the search for and acquisition of romantic love was a central concern of the plot. In defending ‘chick lit’, La’Brooy asked, “Does romantic idealism immediately polarise a desire for political, professional and social equality?” Her question highlights two concerns raised by contemporary literary and feminist scholars including Pamela Regis, Stephanie Harzewski and Imelda Whelehan. The first concern focuses on the compatibility of romance novels in particular and the romance plot more widely with ‘feminism.’ Historically, feminists such as Germaine Greer have criticised romance novels for their form (including their plot, characters and endings) and their supposed affect on readers. Yet, as early as 1984, Margaret Ann Jensen’s Love’s Sweet Return: The Harlequin Story showed that mass market paperback romances had changed in response to feminist criticism. Likewise, Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance (1984) argued that romance novels have a complex affect on their readers. The second concern of feminist and literary scholars in relation to romance novels is how best to define and apply ‘feminism’ as a concept and set of theories when studying contemporary literature. This concern has been complicated by the ‘posting’ of feminism, where feminism’s meaning is now determined largely by whom is speaking and the context of the discussion. Many definitions of feminism abound including the different perspectives mapped in Rosemarie Tong’s Feminist Thought (1989) to the more recent theories of feminism as first wave, second wave, third wave and/or postfeminism. Thus, these recent theoretical developments have led to ‘feminism’ becoming an ‘overloaded’ concept and a highly contested theoretical terrain. This complexity is problematic for literary analysis. The relatively new genre of ‘chick lit’, female authored novels with contemporary settings and eighteen to forty-five year old heroines, enables an exploration of these concerns about romance and feminism. Most chick novels employ a traditional romance plot to represent a heroine living in the 1990s or 2000s. The use of contemporary settings means that ‘chick lit’ automatically represents Western culture radically transformed by the modern women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The most interesting avenue for inquiry raised by ‘chick lit’ is the inherent tension between the genre’s representation of a post ‘second wave feminist’ setting and the romantic narrative structure. This thesis explores the relationship between…