Literary gender fantasies studied

May 12, 2005, vol. 33, no. 2
By Julie Ovenll-Carter

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Long before Bridget Jones shared her angst-ridden diary with millions of eager women around the world, so-called chick-lit was a well-established and popular literary genre.

From Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester to Carrie Bradshaw and Mr. Big, the romantic travails of headstrong young women and their tough-but-tender alpha-male love interests have absorbed generations of readers.

So it came as no surprise to Stephen Ogden when his new English 369: Studies in Prose Genres course examining such literature filled up almost the moment it was announced.

The research course, offered for the first time this summer, will compare the literary qualities of chick-lit and lad-lit - that is, male-centred stories with a strong adventure component - from across the centuries. Readings include Robert Burns' Rob Roy and Martin Amis' Money, Charlotte Bronte's Villette and Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary.

Ogden says the course “is descriptive, not prescriptive,” and will equip students “to accept or reject the hypothesis that these genres are expressions of men's and women's quite different fantasies about what constitutes ideal masculinity and femininity.”

Ogden sums up his take on the essential difference between the two genres: “In chick-lit, the woman only accepts an idealised man who proves himself worthy by recognising her inner excellence regardless of her appearance. In lad-lit, women are incidental to the fantasy, which is structured so that male readers can experience vicarious success at masculine performance.”

Ogden says he is “aware of feminist criticism of the chick-lit genre because it encodes differences between the sexes.” He counters: “I offer the theory that chick-lit follows, in part, Darwin's model of sexual selection - that is, the female chooses a mate from a parade of competing males to ensure the survival of the species.”

As to whether chick-lit and lad-lit promote dangerous male-female stereotypes, Ogden chuckles: “I think if you read these novels closely, you'll see that they portray men and women defining for themselves their needs, and asserting their ambitions and desires. My hope is that an academic reading of these genres will lead my students to understand and appreciate what their wide popularity says about their literary representation of complementary differences between the sexes."

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