I’ll be honest—I love chick lit. Those identical pastel paperbacks, the spunky and financially successful heroines, the magical endings straight out of an R-rated Hallmark movie. Chick lit generally encompasses anything light-hearted, charming, and aimed at women; it’s a catch-all genre for happy endings and syrupy love stories, something I need now more than ever. Getting to the romance section of Barnes and Noble without anyone seeing me is always an ordeal, to say the least; I grab my Talia Hibbert books and run, afraid someone from school will see me standing near Romancing the Werewolf. A perfect Saturday night for me looks like curling up with an Ariana Grande album, a cup of hot chocolate, and Get a Life, Chloe Brown; during lockdown, reading romance was my favored form of escapism because of its predictable formula and incessant optimism. For those same reasons, men and women often dismiss chick lit as trite fluff at best and toxic at worst. For a long time, I did too.
Though the genre has faced derision for yielding to vapid wish fulfillment, its content is anything but. Women have fought hard for a space in publishing that is almost wholly theirs; from Jane Austen’s groundbreaking, undoubtedly commercial works to genre definers like The Devil Wears Prada, gatekeepers have always mocked stories that women hold close to their hearts. After all, Lizzie Bennet and Elle Woods have one thing in common: they massively piss off the men around them. Women’s lives, especially when viewed through idealistic, rose-colored glasses, do not have “literary merit” when compared to their male counterparts. Let me ask you this: how many books have you read about pessimistic men soullessly fucking over and objectifying the women around them that were supposedly “literary”? From the words of Kerouac and Hemingway to contemporary works like House of Leaves and even Call Me By Your Name, sexism runs rampant in literature; respectful, feminist fluff seems much better in comparison.
Is it really so wrong to take comfort in fairy-tale romance and career-oriented fabulism? Often, chick lit is about moving on from setbacks and trauma—a subject that’s especially appealing during a pandemic and an American election season. When the genre tackles serious subjects, it does so with a bittersweet smile and a pat on the shoulder. Just take a look at Emily Henry’s book-club-fodder magnum opus, Beach Read, which tackles adultery, grief, and cults yet still reads like a sugary rom-com. The Right Swipe by Alisha Rai tangles with workplace equity and the Me Too movement and still maintains a hard-earned sense of optimism. These novels’ protagonists are women who have been through hell and still get a happy ending, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want that for myself, too. I want to believe in true love in any way I can, and if that means devouring “trashy” romances, that’s what I’ll do.
Funnily enough, chick lit has actually restored my faith in men. Even though the heroes of these books aren’t necessarily realistic, they are often decent, respectful, and reject toxic masculinity; some of my favorite rom-com Prince Charmings have been retired NFL players working for dating apps and dark, brooding authors with a knack for baking. If anything, these balanced, mature characters encourage the women who read chick lit not to settle for anything less. The men in chick lit have always been a reflection of what women are afraid to ask for, from Mr. Darcy to the kinky (albeit toxic) reign of Christian Grey. Any contemporary romance would be remiss without a sex scene that included verbal, enthusiastic consent, and there’s a good reason for that—romance is the platform where women can safely advocate for diversity, respect, and focus on female pleasure. I find myself turning away from the misogynistic, assault-ridden sci-fi community and the oft-fatalistic trappings of lit fic because, truthfully, I’ve realized I don’t have to settle.
For me, chick lit provides comfort and safety like no other genre, a fun distraction from a world where love and happiness are a little harder to maintain. Sure, it’s not representative of “real life,” but it is representative of the people who read romance. There are chick-lit novels about computer programmers and architects, romantics and cynics, cozy home-makers and workaholics; the heroines are of every race, religion, and sexuality, providing the exact sort of inclusive escapism we need right now. The fluffiness is freeing for those of us who are tired of reading stories about our own pain, who desperately want to believe in perfect endings. I want to read a book about a bisexual Ph.D. candidate in a happy, long-term relationship and believe that I can have that, too; I’m exhausted by LGBT romances that only end in tragedy. Chick lit is an escape, yes, but it’s also an affirmation that love exists and joy is real. I, too, can curl up with my pastel paperback and dream of a better future.
By MJ Brown
Illustration by Emma Baynes