In attempting to find less white, mainstream examples of chick lit, I began to think that “alternative chick lit” is an oxymoron. After all, in a genre known for its light-heartedness and uncritical focus on sex, designer shoes, and Cosmopolitans, it can feel like a world that belongs only to the privileged. Many scholars and critics agree, calling chick lit “fun … without philosophical musings” or “apolitical,” a genre “whose light-heartedness and optimism upstage social criticism.”
Though avid fans might insist there’s no harm in just having some fun (it’s all girls wanna do, after all), I have to worry that these limited definitions of chick lit are inevitably exclusionary of any woman whose identity is other than white, cis, hetero, able-bodied, conventionally attractive, middle- or upper-class, and college-educated “chick.” I find it hard to imagine that any woman floats entirely apolitically through life on strappy Jimmy Choos and sipping non-fat lattes; but when we talk about women who are marginalized, blissful ignorance to the politics of gender, race, ability, sexuality, economy, and education, seems impossible, and to insist on it can be deeply problematic. If chick-lit protagonists must be perpetually naïve and apolitical, can any marginalized woman comfortably exist within the genre?
Terry McMillan is often cited as the mother of chick lit for black women, but she abhors the term. She calls it a “cheap shot” and says that while women writers might write about “matters of the heart,” she argues that these matters are about a lot more than sex and romance. And her writing often points to political issues affecting black American women.
In McMillan’s How Stella Got Her Groove Back – about a 42-year-old single mother who falls in love with a younger man in Jamaica – is on the surface about sex, lying on the beach, and shopping. In one minute, Stella is describing her favourite bathing suit; in the next, she’s stripping it off as the only black woman on the Jamaican resort’s nude beach. She reads the racist assumptions in the white gazes on her body:
…It is not really because I am all that gorgeous, she thinks. The deal is that I am the only black woman on this beach because most black people only run around naked in Africa where we are in front of our own people.
Earlier, she’d already explained her reluctance to visit the nude beach:
I wouldn’t want to give white men the pleasure of seeing my black body considering they used to rape us when we were slaves or did you forget about that little part of our history?
Stella is largely preoccupied with clothes and romance, but in moments like these, she brings to light some of the politics of simply being a black woman.
This might be why McMillan hates the term “chick lit.” Even when discussing “black chick lit” as a genre, politics are avoided. A New York Times article described black chick lit protagonists as “educated and decidedly middle to upper class” with “love, not privilege [as] the only real speed bump.”
In the same article, Tia Williams, author of The Accidental Diva, confirms this is her view: “Recent black fiction has been full of whiny, suffering-from-my-hair politics, my-man-done-me-wrong women. Sounds pat, but many people think you need to be downtrodden to be truly black.” To dismiss any acknowledgement of the marginalization poses to women of colour as whining is downright offensive, particularly when Williams and other advocates see this as empowering.
Stella is hardly “downtrodden” – she is successful and self-assured. But she still remembers and pays respect, however brief, to the history of enslavement, abuse, oppression, and insidious racism she continues to struggle against. For a black woman in a racist and sexist world, Stella implies, nothing is as simple as an apolitical beach read. Perhaps this is why some argue that calling Stella “chick lit” is inaccurate. If it is the case, maybe chicks should work to change that definition, instead of crafting mainstream love stories to fit into it.
What should chick lit look like? What about Toni Morrison? Her novel Jazz is, like Stella, about a May-December romance. It’s beautiful, nuanced in its depiction of African American life in 1920s New York. What I love most about Jazz is that, while grappling with issues of race and history, it depicts the beauty and complexity of women and their relationships. Morrison’s women may seem “downtrodden” according to Williams’ definition: Violet is 56, an orphan, living in Harlem, struggling as a hairdresser, talks to herself and commits a horrific act of violence; Dorcas, also orphaned, is the teenaged lover of Violet’s husband, who desires attention at all costs; Alice is the widowed aunt of Dorcas who fears the world and smothers with her love; Wild is a woman of unknown origin who lives in the woods. Society has cast them off for their race, their gender, their orphan-hood and their poverty; but instead of ignoring their stories, Morrison tells them with a voice that shows their dignity and personhood, despite – or, sometimes, because of – their flaws.
Many bloggers, thinkers and writers list McMillan in the same ranks as Morrison or Alice Walker, but I’m not sold. Stella earns points over Bridget Jones in my mind for mentioning racism and sexism, but it does not fully interrogate them. Meanwhile, Morrison takes readers on a profound journey Marilyn Sanders Mobley describes as “informed by a compelling sense of history … and full knowledge of the power of the word to destroy or create.” Yeah, that sounds like a better definition of chick lit to me.
Yet Jazz has never been considered chick lit, despite its complex women and focus on love and female companionship. Meanwhile, Stella is sometimes included for its beaches, steamy sex, consumerism, and easy-to-digest characters. At other times, it chafes against the genre simply because Stella is not oblivious to oppression. McMillan herself laments that her current work-in-progress has been termed “too dark” by her publisher, hinting they worry she’ll stray from easy reading. She calls the industry out as racist in its expectation on black writers to imitate, not innovate.
It’s not hard to agree when we assume a definition of chick lit that is inherently conformist. If acceptance into the chick lit club depends on ignoring intersectionality, it’s natural that McMillan resents the term, and so do I. If chick lit cannot survive politics, then what really is its relevance to any 21st century feminist? Not much at all.