Society is long past the notion of “girl things” and “boy things,” except for, it seems, when it comes to media. Of course, anyone can freely consume any media they want to, but what does gender do for our perception of these movies and books?
And, most importantly, is it harmful?
The word chick-flick is fun. It’s bubblegum pink and reeks of a little too much Bath and Body Works perfume. It’s often accompanied by a giggle and something about guilty pleasures. Other words aren’t like that: “adventure,” “action,” even “love story.” These words sound a little more exciting, a little more serious, a little less Netflix-binging on a sick day, a little more like the movie theater.
Then there’s women’s lit: all pained and serious, a class for smart men who want to understand something they are not, women desperate to finally see stories they can relate to discussed seriously, all anguish and love, family and hope, femininity and strength.
Marketed to women, both categories of fiction carry specific connotations and often show up as their own shelves, their own TV categories, feature sets, or even classes, such as those about women's lit.
The question of the connotation of the labels is posed. Why are they what they are, and are they okay? What does this say about the representation of women in “flicks” and books? What does this say about our acknowledgment of the gender binary?
This article aspires to understand the nuances and essences of these labels and a few more and provide some sort of social commentary on how and why they are used and what that means for the future of media.
In the article, “In Defense of the Chick Flick,” Samantha Gotskind on Her Campus writes examples of chick flicks. Gotskind’s list includes, “… Booksmart, Edge of Seventeen or Easy A…. After or The Duff…La La Land, Her or A Star Is Born… Charlie’s Angels (2019) or Barely Lethal.”
The reason this is relevant isn’t Gotskind’s argument—it’s the movies the author includes. This is a problem because why is Charlie's Angels lumped into a category with the Edge of Seventeen? This genre doesn’t work, because suddenly everything about women, related to women, is now in this female-exclusive genre.
On the other hand, most viewers of chick flicks are women. Emily Jashinsky, culture editor for The Federalist argues that, “The argument ‘there’s nothing inherently gendered about liking a light-hearted film with a strong female lead and emotional arc’ is… predicated on the ascendant notion there’s something wrong with ‘gendering’ products. Men and women like different things…”
An argument to this 2019 post would be, yes, there is something immensely wrong with gendering products. Who is anyone to decide what someone else should like?
On this matter, Genna Edwards, Senior Staff Columnist for The Pitt News, in favor of retiring the term, states “Films about women and for women should simply be considered films. Our stories are for everyone and they matter, even if the world isn’t ready to accept it yet… Hallmark movies and ‘chick flick’-type films may be feminized, but they are not solely for one gender.”
Edwards also summarizes the main point of this article, saying “The idea of a binary ‘for men’ cinema and ‘for women’ cinema is harmful and incorrect in nature. Not only does this idea of male-versus-female cinema privilege the incorrect gender binary system, but it also further divides creators and fans into what they can make and watch, limiting forms of expression…” Chick flicks exclude men, and knowing that men avoid, and even actively dislike, media targeted at women, this seems to create an even bigger gap.
Edwards goes on to say, “Masculine-coded media is not given a childish name — we call movies ostensibly ‘for men’ just that, movies. The silly colloquial etymology of ‘chick flick’ delegitimizes and makes fun of feminine media. ‘Flick’ reads as less serious than the word ‘movie,’ miles away from the highest word of them all — ‘film.’
The other side of this debate provides a counter, with Jashinsky from The Federalist stating, “It’s okay that we have a gendered and trivializing label for these movies because they’re reasonably gendered and reasonably trivial. There may be something to the question of why we only have such a label for women’s films, although my guess would be it has more to do with the convenience of the rhyme than the patriarchy.”
The argument most seen in defense of the “chick-flick” is that it’s really not that deep. But the point raised is that anything that is embedded into culture, into life, into a category or a label, anything that has a certain way of being should be examined–as analyzers, historians, citizens of the world–it’s a responsibility.
And providing the earlier argument–that Mean Girls, a movie considered a chick flick, or La La Land, also considered a chick flick, are not trivial, are important. They are as much cultural moments as any white man film.
Alongside that, the term chick flick also demeans the effort put into that. Here, the Netflix controversy is referred to. In April 2019, Netflix created a thread against the term chick flicks, restating some of what is in this article. “The term also cheapens the work that goes into making these types of films. Romantic comedies and/or films centered around female leads go through just as much editing, consideration, and rewriting as any other film.”
Which brings us back to the men-not-consuming this media portion. Women often end up watching chick flicks at some point, but, as Romper author, Jen McGuire says, “I won't even attempt to watch a movie featuring a female protagonist when all of my sons are around. Which is absolutely not okay, I'm just now realizing. Encouraging the next generation of men to empathize with women needs to start at home.” Parents, guardians and even educators need to also let go of these labels. If everyone decides movies about women–the female Ghostbusters, Charlie’s Angels, The Edge of Seventeen–are just movies about women, not movies with these complex and universal themes, their market is reduced and we perpetuate this culture of… women not just existing, but existing outside of men.
She also talks about “...all of this compromising we do as women, whether it's adjusting our movie expectations or something more, isn't helping,” which keys into this idea of female individual enjoyment of these. An evening in alone or a guilty pleasure rather than something that can be enjoyed, should be enjoyed by anyone who likes it, without any sense of misplaced shame or embarrassed femininity.
Women’s literature–the unique experiences of women in specific (rather than the male-centric stories of a lot of classic lit)--seems to be understood the same way understand LGBTQ+ fiction is. It shouldn’t be a genre–not when women’s fiction ranges from The Bell Jar to Colleen Hoover.
Women's fiction tends to revolve around themes of the home, family, and community, roles all traditionally associated with women. Oftentimes, women’s adherence to these roles were detrimental to them (for example, enslaved African-American women on American plantations were held to plantation life by their integral roles in the family structure.)
Women’s fiction specifies these themes for women. With the rise of feminist movements and embracing the redefinition of gender norms and the gender binary, these themes begin to be important to everyone. The Bell Jar, while often drawing itself to issues of womanhood, is still relevant to men today experiencing mental illness, or men that have seen it. It does not serve as only a male insight into a female mind, but a human experience non-exclusive to gender.
A small amount of opinion articles, research studies, and the like focus on this idea of men avoiding or disliking media aimed at women (as mentioned in the chick flick portion of this article.)
Actress and activist Emma Watson approached the topic around the time Beauty and the Beast was released, saying, “It's something [men are] not used to, and they don't like that… you see someone [unexpected] up on the screen, you go, "Well, that's a girl, she doesn't look like me.” Watson’s argument is that men can’t find it in themselves to relate to female protagonists and due to a lack of exposure to female–
There is a need for women’s literature as a category, or a college class–bringing forth and highlighting the experiences of a group that often gets ignored in traditional English curricula. But still, when the Handmaids Tale and Colleen Hoover are lumped into the same genre, the same shelf, it is unsettling.
There has to be more to these books, better ways to redefine these themes. Women’s lit, from research, is not as big of an issue, or as polarizing as the term “chick flick,” but there is still some sort of reminder that it cannot be a term used to lump experiences together.
Maybe the argument posed is that, for example, we need women's lit as a class or a genre because women are underrepresented in normal lit. And that’s unacceptable. We need to make so-called “women's lit” part of any literature and retire the label for good.
Women are not “other,” they are half of the world population, and we should be in a time now where we are capable of viewing their thoughts and opinions and experiences as normal, often seen and often experienced.
Annette Hasnas, the opinion executive for the Voice, says about Ernest Hemingay’s The Sun Also Rises, in “The Anti-Woman Meaning of Women’s Lit” that “despite the distinctly male gender of both Hemingway and most of his characters, I have never once, among this praise, seen it referred to as “men’s fiction.””
Hasnas attempts to find guidelines for women’s fiction–acknowledging that the category is everywhere with loose interpretations. Is a women's list just written by women? What about women’s lit makes it women’s lit? Does it have to star women, in which case, Hasnas, argues, “whether or not the label can include works written by men (Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter rarely appear on lists of women’s literature, despite their female-focused subject matter, in large part because they are written by men).”
Take that argument, though, and it chalks down to a) being written by a woman and b) focusing on issues or themes related to women. Remove the ridiculous amount of variety in these topics, how some people count “chick lit” in women’s lit and some don’t.
What’s the problem?
Men. masculinity. That’s the problem. So many classics and contemporaries focus on what it means to be a man, the pressures of masculinity through the ages, what fatherless boys think they have to be, what poor men aspire to.
You don’t see men’s lit on shelves.
“Women’s lit” forces the expansive amount of work out there into a niche. Women are not a niche anymore–it’s just lit. That should be the goal for any sort of representation or perspective, and we need to wean off this system that stops women’s lit from being as such.
Not to mention–women’s lit this, male experiences that–what about those outside the gender binary? So often are nonbinary people lumped into women’s because both are somehow marginalized. But they don’t have to be. Especially women–their work and experiences can and should be the norm.
This is touched on just for the sake of making it known that it follows a similar pattern. Alongside chick lit is women’s fiction (differentiated not by much from women’s lit, also following this pattern.)
This article provided the opinion–one shared by many–that consuming chick-lit is an act of feminism. It’s breaking internalized misogyny, allowing girls be feminine rather than having them be “not like other girls” by consuming more masculine material. And I do love that.
But I think misogyny goes the other way too. When we make chick lit exclusive to women, we also send the signal that fun, sappy romance books aren’t for men, can’t be enjoyed the same by men. That liking chick lit makes you any less masculine.
Not only is this a disservice to the literature itself—the books being fun books with often well thought-out characters and heartwarming arcs, written intentionally to not be “great literature,” or even “good”—it limits their market.
That’s also not fair to the authors who are losing readers while writing about very real topics in a nicer, happily-ever-after way, and it implies that nice happily-ever-afters are a thing for, not women, but “chicks.”
Also, the word “chick,” really?
Maybe the problem is the word “chick.” Maybe the problem is the devaluation of these works. Or the turning of them into “other,” into niches, when there are so many “women's lit” books out there. But that’s for everyone to decide for themselves. Is there a problem, and if so, is the literary world willing to change its language to address it?