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In search of feminist romance in Australian 'Chick Lit'

O'Mahony, Lauren (2015) In search of feminist romance in Australian 'Chick Lit'. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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In November 2005, Australian author Melanie La’Brooy published a defence of ‘chick lit’ in the Review section of Australia’s national newspaper, The Weekend Australian. La’Brooy responded to criticisms of the genre, particularly those made by prize winning authors Beryl Bainbridge and Doris Lessing. Bainbridge had asserted that people were wasting their time reading ‘chick lit’ while Lessing dismissed the genre’s authors for writing “instantly forgettable books.” La’Brooy referred to other critics who decried the genre for being antifeminist because the search for and acquisition of romantic love was a central concern of the plot. In defending ‘chick lit’, La’Brooy asked, “Does romantic idealism immediately polarise a desire for political, professional and social equality?” Her question highlights two concerns raised by contemporary literary and feminist scholars including Pamela Regis, Stephanie Harzewski and Imelda Whelehan. The first concern focuses on the compatibility of romance novels in particular and the romance plot more widely with ‘feminism.’ Historically, feminists such as Germaine Greer have criticised romance novels for their form (including their plot, characters and endings) and their supposed affect on readers. Yet, as early as 1984, Margaret Ann Jensen’s Love’s Sweet Return: The Harlequin Story showed that mass market paperback romances had changed in response to feminist criticism. Likewise, Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance (1984) argued that romance novels have a complex affect on their readers. The second concern of feminist and literary scholars in relation to romance novels is how best to define and apply ‘feminism’ as a concept and set of theories when studying contemporary literature. This concern has been complicated by the ‘posting’ of feminism, where feminism’s meaning is now determined largely by whom is speaking and the context of the discussion. Many definitions of feminism abound including the different perspectives mapped in Rosemarie Tong’s Feminist Thought (1989) to the more recent theories of feminism as first wave, second wave, third wave and/or postfeminism. Thus, these recent theoretical developments have led to ‘feminism’ becoming an ‘overloaded’ concept and a highly contested theoretical terrain. This complexity is problematic for literary analysis.

The relatively new genre of ‘chick lit’, female authored novels with contemporary settings and eighteen to forty-five year old heroines, enables an exploration of these concerns about romance and feminism. Most chick novels employ a traditional romance plot to represent a heroine living in the 1990s or 2000s. The use of contemporary settings means that ‘chick lit’ automatically represents Western culture radically transformed by the modern women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The most interesting avenue for inquiry raised by ‘chick lit’ is the inherent tension between the genre’s representation of a post ‘second wave feminist’ setting and the romantic narrative structure.

This thesis explores the relationship between romance and feminism in a selection of Australian chick lit novels. I undertake a traditional literary analysis focusing on the plot, character and themes of the novels. Five permutations of Australian chick lit are examined: urban romances, cosmopolitan Koori lit (Indigenous chick lit), comical suburban novels, the rural romance and the red dirt romance. My reading of Australian chick lit draws upon Pamela Regis’s A Natural History of the Romance Novel (2003) to examine how the novels utilise romantic narrative elements, construct romantic characters and represent themes of love and romance. I do this to determine the degree to which chick novels adhere to the essential elements of romance and explore how companionate love is portrayed. My feminist reading of Australian chick lit also examines the plot, characterisation and themes of the selected novels. I assess whether chick lit deviates from the romance plot and whether such deviations can be deemed feminist. I apply feminist theory to explore the representation of the protagonists in chick lit, particularly the genre’s heroines. I focus on the gendered identities of each heroine and consider whether they exhibit postfeminist and/or third wave feminist characteristics. I then apply contemporary feminist theory to critically analyse the central themes raised by each subgenre of Australian chick lit including consumption, body image, gender and racial discrimination, social relationships, success and ‘having it all’ and gender inequality in the workplace. I argue that my selected novels use their narrative structure to critically engage with these themes while seeking out resolutions for the main characters.

My analysis of Australian chick lit reveals that some novels can be read as strong examples of feminist romance. However, this depends on the text, who is reading it and the characteristics of feminism and romance being applied. I argue that the subgenres of Australian chick lit examined here continue the tradition of prose romance while engaging with, and sometimes championing, the quest for women’s empowerment.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Arts
Supervisor(s): Trees, Kathryn
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