Monday, December 18, 2017

"Big Little Lies," or What's My Problem With Chick Lit?

I mostly go to the local library branch for my kids, just to browse and spark their interests, but my eyes do run over the "new and hot" section on the red hot cart (hence the name I suppose).  That's where I found Liane Moriarty's "Big Little Lies."  I recognized the title from the HBO series of the same name, starring Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman and Aleksander Skarsgard.  I haven't seen it, but I know from a Reductress post and general zeitgeist murmurings that there's heavy themes of marital violence and rape.  So of course I brought it home, even if the cover is an exploding lollipop.  I got about halfway through, which was hard for me, and then I skimmed the second half and read the Wikipedia pages about the book and the series.

Why was it so hard for me to read this seemingly vapid and easily digestible tome?  Well, first of all, the very fact that it was so vapid and two dimensional while dealing with such heavy topics was a bit of a disappointment.  None of the women are very fleshed out (not that the men are more developed, they are actually barely present at all, more like 1.5 dimensional).  The main character, Madeline, was a "glittery girl" who liked accessories and is very vocally fond of shoes and perfume and self-conscious about her lack of social awareness when compared to her ex-husband's new wife.  This comes into play when their teenage daughter wants to go live with the ex husband and she's all hurt about it.  Then she's friends with fragile but rich and beautiful Celeste and new-in-town Jane.  The main story centers around a murder at an elementary school parents' trivia night, the victim of which we do not find out until the end.  But I easily guessed who was murdered and what the main paternity mystery of the novel's answer was early in the book, and it left me bored.

This year has been one of rapid emotion and social growth for me.  A big part of that growth was examining my relationships with my womanhood and with other women.  I used to always claim to prefer the company of men.  I realize now a big part of the reason for that was wanting male attention while trapped in a dead marriage and feeling disgusting about myself, needing that attention to feel approval and feel okay with myself.  I also didn't know how to connect with other women, but I was desperate for female companionship.  However, back when I was totally disconnected from society, I used to read stuff like this novel and other popular women's literature and feel like it was hopeless, feel like I must be some sort of alien non-female for reacting in such a visceral negative way to this literature. 

But now that I do have female friendships in my life and am doing universes better socially and emotionally, I can see that just because this type of writing isn't my cup of tea doesn't mean it doesn't have value to a lot of women and doesn't mean I'm an unfemale freak of some sort.  In fact, the simplistic juxtaposition of scenes with Madeline fetishizing champagne brunches and expensive shoes and the scenes describing the disturbing sexual violence might actually make it more easy to comprehend for some women.  Or maybe it just drives the point of the horrors home even further, like even when you live this pleasant silly life where squabbles about kindergarten birthday parties are the biggest item on your agenda, women are getting choked and degraded and objectified, women that you know and love.  Damn, shit got real. 

Anyway from the description of the show, it seems like the show writers agreed with me, because they added a lot of dramatic side stories not present in the book.  So maybe my assessment of it being too simple was more universal than I would have once feared.  Maybe I'm a real girl after all.


Brenda St John Brown said...

This feels an awful lot to me like genre bashing -- not only the book, itself, but the people who read and enjoy it. As a reader and writer of books that fall into the chick lit category, my hackles are up -- and not only b/c you base your assessment of an entire category of books on one book that you half-read in this post -- but because even your (grudging) admission that although this type of writing isn't your cup of tea but (perhaps) has value, is a backhanded compliment at best.

Unknown said...

I'm sorry Brenda, I agree it was a sloppy review (I've just come off a week of a stomach bug going through four kids plus finals birthdays and holidays) and I didn't get my point across like I wanted to. I meant for this post to be more a reflection on my changing feelings about femaleness and women and relationships with women. As I said, growing up I had very few female friends, which in retrospect likely had less to do with me not identifying with girls and women and more to do with my family turmoil and socioeconomic status being something of an anomaly at our tony suburban white bread school. Koz can back me up here, he was there. But I didn't understand that, didn't realize I was poor and going through trauma my classmates didn't understand, and just thought it was that I wasn't a normal girl.

I'm also a few years out of a decade spent in total social isolation, where I was desperate for companionship and sisterhood. I got married and started having babies much much earlier than anyone else I knew, and all I wanted was to feel like I belonged with other women, wives and moms, but I never seemed to be able to meet any. So my main window into married motherhood was online mom forums, which were problematic in ways I don't need to go into here, and chick lit. I actually did find some chick lit I enjoyed, specifically Jennifer Weiner, but most of the time I read it I was filled with despair that my own experience of womanhood, of wifedom and motherhood, was so far off from what was going on in these books. They left me feeling like a freak, like I'd never belong anywhere with other women. Moreover, there's a frequent theme in chick lit books that I've read (and online mom forums too) of the "mommy wars," where women are harshly judging each others' every minute mothering decision. I couldn't even find another mom to talk to in real life, so to think that if I did find one that she'd instantly be quietly ripping me apart in judgment in a way that I wouldn't even be able to comprehend terrified me.

So I developed the childish defense mechanism of deriding and rejecting the entire genre, and in many ways my own gender as well. This is what I was trying and obviously failing to convey in my post - that I am examining my own views and behaviors of the past and realizing that yes, this type of writing isn't my cup of tea, but it doesn't mean I don't like women and that I'd never fit in with any group of women, and that it is a good genre that is entertaining, empowering and enlightening to many.

Cheryl Oreglia said...

Abigail, I see the changing feelings about femaleness seeping through the lines of this post. It is difficult to review a book let alone take on the challenging review of oneself. I suppose that is why I love writing, I discover things about myself hidden in-between the lines. Sometimes when we are so close to the subject we are blinded by proximity. Be gentle on yourself, you've doing "universes better socially and emotionally," and that's a very good thing. Box up 2017 and stick her in the rafters, we have 2018 to open, a whole new adventure. I look forward to your next update!

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