This has been a very girly summer. It kicked off in May with Sex and the City 2, the latest installment in the chick-fueled power franchise, which managed to rake in nearly $300 million worldwide, despite widespread mockery and negative reviews. By the end of June, we had Twilight: Eclipse, another proven hit with women, which broke box-office records despite widespread mockery and middling-to-negative reviews. And now, as we head into the fall, there is the film adaptation of Eat, Pray, Love, which is also raking in a very respectable amount of cash, despite... Well. You get the picture.
All of these franchises are fueled by women's money, and women's interest, and all are massive cultural and economic forces. They sell movie tickets, books, and a truly impressive amount of tie-in merchandise. But the most important thing they have in common may be the derision and contempt they inspire in cultural commentators. They're about trivial stuff like shopping, boyfriends, trying to put the "sparkle" back in marriages; they're about pathetic stuff like heartbreak, divorce, loneliness, and menopause; they're about drippy stuff like self-love, family, and cuddly, soft-focus, Oprah-approved spirituality. In other words, they're about the very things that women are encouraged to be most interested in. And this alone may be enough to keep many people from taking them seriously.
If the recent blow-up around Jonathan Franzen's Freedom has done anything, it's opened up a conversation about how we value, or devalue, writers who express stereotypically feminine concerns in their work. For those who have somehow missed out on the much-blogged controversy, it went like this: Michiko Kakutani was pleased—very pleased!—by Franzen's book. Novelist Jodi Picoult read the review. She was not pleased—very not pleased!—with it. She then tweeted the following: "NYT raved about Franzen's new book. Is anyone shocked?" Well, no. More surprising, however: The fact that Picoult went on to allege that the New York Times privileged "white male" authors and ignored "books read by women," by which she meant commercial fiction, romance, and anything that fits under the label "chick-lit." Chick-lit author Jennifer Weiner chimed in to agree, also via Twitter, saying "NYT sexist, unfair, loves Gary Shteyngart, hates chick lit, ignores romance."
This is a simplistic argument. For example, one of the many female writers that the New York Times has failed to ignore is Jodi Picoult; a 2008 review criticized her novel Change of Heart (reader, it revolves around a heart transplant) for its "vapidity," called it "her latest tear-jerker," and referred to her protagonist as "a wet hankie." It's hard to ignore the gendered tone here—oh, those silly, weepy women and their tear-jerkers, etcetera—but it's also impossible to imagine a contemporary novelist like Jennifer Egan or Hilary Mantel getting the same review. The New York Times privileges literary fiction, and it has the right to do so.
Still, the fact that being perceived as a writer of "women's fiction"—or just writing about traditionally female concerns like family, marriage, and romance—automatically lowers one's status and circumscribes one's audience is unavoidably true. One of the many authors who have encountered the problem is Jonathan Franzen. When Oprah Winfrey chose his last novel, The Corrections, for her book club, he reacted with what seemed like sheer panic.
"I had some hope of reaching a male audience," he said of the matter. He added that male readers had been saying things to him along the lines of, "I figure [Oprah's selected] books are for women. I would never touch it." Being too publicly aligned with women, and women's concerns, can wreck your reputation—even if you are a "white male literary darling" like Franzen, and even if your actual skill is not in question.
And yet, women are drawn to stories about these lesser, female matters, no matter how stigmatized they may be. Eat, Pray, Love, for example, succeeded in large part because it endows women's intimate lives with grand significance. You'll find plenty of people willing to call it "narcissistic," self-indulgent, trivial, or melodramatic. But Gilbert's descriptions of despair, emptiness and self-doubt following the wreckage of two important relationships do ring true for many women. Whatever else she's doing, she's communicating with people who are vulnerable and lonely. The story works because it gives those women the implicit permission to admit that yes, break-ups are a very big deal. You do deserve the time and space to heal from them; you are allowed to experience them as major losses and disappointments.
The Sex and the City and Twilight franchises may have less cosmic implications, but they too allow women to self-mythologize and assign importance to matters of sex, dating, and intimate conflict—whether they're offering a fantasy of single life as a marvelous, celebratory adventure or a fantasy of literally undying, all-consuming love, what they're offering women is a chance to see their own most personal concerns dramatized and given focus. To see themselves, and their feelings, as important.
Of course, we can complain that these portrayals of the female heart are crass, politically retrograde, or just plain bad. In many cases, they are. It's all right to wish that there were more nuanced, forward-thinking and intelligent stories being made and marketed to women. But when we dismiss domestic, romantic narratives as trivial, we enact an age-old double standard. We socialize women to be more emotionally available and empathetic than men; we encourage them to want intimate relationships, commitment, and families; we push them to view their successes or failures on the romantic front as in some way indicative of their human worth. And then, when women turn out to be deeply interested these domestic and romantic matters, we call them trivial and self-absorbed.
Maybe it's time to admit that women can enjoy admittedly sub-par, trivial stuff that caters to them as much as men can, and that there is no special shame in buying a ticket to Eat, Pray, Love rather than The Expendables. Or to note that, in our current cultural climate, encouraging women to have more fun and care about themselves a little more is no bad thing.
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