I am not a reader of “chick lit.” I am, however, a reader of women writers who grapple with the same issues as today’s chick lit – relationships, motherhood, sexuality. Among my favourites are Toni Morrison, the Brontës, Margaret Atwood, Zadie Smith – Jane Austen is my chick lit. But is this really fair? Is there really such a big difference between lit for chicks and literature for women?
Recently, I read Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James, which has generated such hype it’s created its own chick lit subgenre: “mommy porn.” As I read I thought about how Fifty Shades compares to other narratives of female sexual awakening – particularly Kate Chopin’s 1899 novel, The Awakening, about Edna, a young wife and mother finding sexual and spiritual freedom outside her loveless marriage. At its publication, the Chicago Times Herald commented that “it was not necessary for a writer of so great refinement and poetic grace to enter the overworked field of sex fiction,” accusing her of selling out to lascivious tastes. James would sympathize. Fifty Shades is often similarly ridiculed by critics, while The Awakening is now considered a milestone in feminist literature. Is this fair?
In The Awakening, Edna mentions a book that had “gone the rounds” among women that was so scandalous Edna “felt moved to read the book in secret and solitude” while other women “openly criticised and freely discussed [it] at table.”
I felt very much like Edna reading Fifty Shades. Chopin not only prophesizes the popular reception of her book, but also that of Fifty Shades and of chick lit in general: something to be shared among women, but to be embarrassed about in the greater public sphere. Even confirmed chick lit fans constantly qualify their favourites as “not great literature but a good beach read.” Should we be embarrassed? Are chick lit and great literature mutually exclusive categories?
Should we embrace Fifty Shades as another landmark of feminism, awakening women everywhere to the world of BDSM?
In my opinion, there are many problems with Fifty Shades. One is that it is atrociously written. Two, is the problem of domestic abuse and violence against women that is not adequately interrogated in the series.
But what really struck me in comparing the two novels, were the interactions between women, a topic particularly pertinent to a discussion of books written by women, read by women, and shared amongst women.
Though The Awakening aroused (pun intended) controversy for its eroticism, the sex is secondary. The tension between Edna and Robert, the young man she lusts after, is relieved late in the book. Before this, Edna must abandon her identity as wife and mother and explore herself as an individual. She makes friends, she moves out by herself, and she takes up painting. Only then – in her own house and on her own terms (she, in 1899, is the one who kisses Robert first – something James’s Ana needs permission to do) – does she consummate her feelings for Robert.
Much of her self-exploration is done with the support of other women. Her friend Adèle represents the perfect “mother-woman.” She reminds Edna of her responsibilities to her family, but never wavers in her friendship, even asking for Edna during childbirth. Mademoiselle Reisz is an older woman happily living alone on the fringe of high society who helps Edna understand her feelings for Robert. Though these feelings are central to the plot, Edna’s true growth happens during her solitude and with other women. There is a deep bond among Chopin’s women that exists separate from, and sometimes in spite of, their husbands, children, and lovers.
Meanwhile, Ana of Fifty Shades is an innocent virgin deflowered by Christian Grey, who has a taste for domination that goes far beyond the bedroom. Christian cuts her off from other women; he has a Non-Disclosure Agreement that prevents Ana from discussing her feelings with her best friend and mother, and denies Ana space to think, going so far as to travel across the country to put her back in her place. Within months of her first sexual experience, Ana is married and pregnant.
Though the story is supposed to be about Ana discovering her sexuality and helping a broken man, it ends up reading more like a tale of a woman’s duty to sacrifice herself for and to men. Instead of sex being an end result of her self-discovery – as in The Awakening – sex is at the crux of the story. “This is what we do,” Ana repeats: when they fight, everything is made better by sex, not talk. Ana constantly worries about whether she is suited to the lifestyle Christian desires. To combat these concerns, she repeats the mantra, “this is for him.” While I had hoped Fifty Shades might at least have one redeeming feature in its portrayal and acceptance of BDSM lifestyles, in the end Ana seems strongly coerced into submission over fears of losing Christian, rather than being convinced it is right for her as an individual. Only at the series’ end does she say it might also be for her, but it is not terribly convincing after 900 pages of struggle and tears. Sex and Ana’s obsession with Christian distract from the consummation of her identity: BDSM isn’t her identity, it’s Christian’s.
Christian also influences Ana’s relationship to other women. Elena – the troubled and abused woman who introduced Christian to BDSM at age 15 – is referred to as “Mrs. Robinson” and “Bitch Troll.” Christian’s birth mother, a drug-using, abused sex worker, is called “the crack whore” instead of by name, and any woman who admires Christian’s looks is a bitch and a whore. The “crack whore” and the “Bitch Troll” are responsible for Christian’s abusive behaviour towards women, and Ana and the aptly-named Grace, Christian’s adoptive mother, are his saviours. Ana is not a modern girl with kinky sexual appetites, but instead a sacrificial lamb.
Chick lit at its best should create a community of women discussing and sharing books, ideas, and interests. The Awakening suits this genre in its promotion of female companionship and clever engagement of women’s issues far ahead of its time. Fifty Shades, meanwhile, takes a step backwards, encouraging self-sacrifice to the desires of controlling men, and promoting hatred, name-calling and competition amongst women.
So put down Fifty Shades and pick up The Awakening – not because great literature and chick lit can’t share space on our bookshelves, but because Fifty Shades doesn’t deserve either title.
Carolyn is a library worker and aspiring writer living in London, Ontario with her husband. She writes and rants at her blog, Cool Beans.