In her 1929 essay 'A Room Of One's Own', Virginia Woolf wrote 'it is obvious that the values of women differ very often from the values which have been made by the other sex; naturally this is so. Yet it is the masculine values that prevail [...] This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing room.' Almost a century later, the idea that entertainment specifically marketed at women has less inherent worth than that of men is unfortunately standing strong.
Those interested in Sylvia Plath may have seen the recent controversy stirred by Faber with their 50th anniversary edition of 'The Bell Jar'. Criticism of the cover ranged from the obvious - that it doesn't relate to the plot and it's a bad picture - to the more complex, with sites such as Jezebel pointing out that a book that has traditionally been a staple on any feminist reading list probably shouldn't be aesthetically re-branded as the kind poolside novel one picks up at the airport (here I feel I should note that while I don't approve of Jezebel generally, I include them here because what they said is pretty on point). Marketing Plath's novel as 'chick lit' may seem like a fairly innocuous, if irritating, move, but to many it's indicative of the larger idea that entertainment created for, by and starring women simply isn't as important as other material. 'The Bell Jar' has been deliberately re-released as a 'women only' book, and consequentially demoted to the realms of literature seen as inferior. Why is this?
It starts with the terminology. The very phrase 'chick-lit' instantly sends our minds to a place of fluffy story-lines devoid of real substance. To my knowledge there is no equivalent commonly used expression for fiction marketed specifically at men, despite the fact that there are as many half-baked stories about action heroes and spies on the shelves of Waterstones as tales of romance and torrid affairs. Never have I heard the James Bond series referred to as 'dick lit', and yet that's exactly what it is. Both genres follow the basic formula of idealized characters in provocative or dangerous situations, and both directly appeal to the romanticized notion of femininity/masculinity. Neither type of book is meant to be the author's Magnum Opus, but rather just a quick read that satisfies the human need for a neat story. Replace the muscle-ridden action hero and explosives with a muscle-ridden pool boy and a hot tub and they're more or less the same trashy plot- and yet only 'chick lit' comes under fire for being vacuous.
This phenomenon is by no means reserved for books. 'Fangirl', the music world's favourite buzzword to express a level of devotion to a musician that is somewhat obsessive, or to imply that the appreciation isn't genuinely based on musical talent but on looks or persona, is an integrally gendered term. I'm no great fan of boy bands like One Direction and JLS, but frequently they are written off as ridiculous on the basis that they have a following of 'fangirls', or that they're annoying not because of their incessantly chirpy manufactured pop but because of their legions of 'fangirls'. Snobbery isn't exactly a rare occurrence in the perpetually self-important world of music journalism but as with 'chick lit', it does seem that the subtext of using the word is that a predominantly young female interest in a product is reason enough that it is shameful. Rather than attacking the content of what is being criticized, people are instead quick to take a shot at the demographic. Not only is this a lazy critique, but treating women's interest as if it is a kiss of death to credibility is misogynistic in the extreme.
It's incredibly easy to forget how words can carry more meaning than their general usage, especially when they have developed as slang references, and I readily admit to have considered myself somehow 'above' reading 'chick lit' and having called people 'fangirls' in the past. I never bothered to stop and consider the fact that I didn't feel the same arrogance about boy's books, or that perhaps it makes more sense to dislike a band based on their music than their following. It took a lot of reading articles like this and hearing about the struggle that female authors go through to stop publishers automatically disregarding their books as 'not for men' to grasp the idea that I wasn't feeling superior to books or music, but to other women. Next time you want to jeer at something, be it a book, film or band, stop and think about the words you use. Are you showing your distaste for the subject matter? Or are you just expressing scorn for women?