Monday, June 04, 2007

Ch**k lit?

This morning I read Summer Reads on Salon in which the word "chick" was spelled "ch**k". That gave me a bit of a pause. Then, as I was reading my daily blog roll, I saw a link to Ghetto (Not) Fabulous by Erica Jong on HuffPo (via Feministing). Jong criticizes the (US) media and their consistent undervaluing of women writers. The term "chick lit" stands out as a specific way to trivialize novels by women. Jong writes:
Feminists used to say the personal is political. I think we need to consider that message again now. We will never give peace a chance until we start paying as much attention to women as to war. Unless we value the bonds of love as much as male territoriality, we are goners.

I would like to see the talented new breed of American women writers -- my daughter's generation -- protest their ghettoization. We need a new wave of feminism to set things right. But we'd better find a new name for it because like all words evoking women, the term feminism has been debased and discarded. Let's celebrate our femaleness rather than fear it. And let's mock the old-fashioned critics who dismiss us for thinking love matters. It does.

I've got a few issues with Jong's statements about needing a "new wave of feminism" - it's true that the term "feminism" gets a bad rap, but that's because of perception of feminism, not feminism itself. And while we're being sensitive about language, how about not using the word "ghetto" to describe, like, the worst place in the whole wide world?

But, yes, we do need to pay attention to women as much (more than!) war. Giving the work by women the diminutive title of "chick lit" implies that subjects important to (some) women writers are less important than those addressed by (some) males. I will not here imply that women and men's writings are diametrically opposed, nor will I pretend that I have no idea what specific type of literature is being referred to as "chick lit." But this goes deeper than the actual books, the words on the page - it has to do with how we value women.

After a recent trip to a bookstore, I met some friends for lunch. They asked me what books I got, and I happily produced them. My friend (a man), looked at all three and put them aside. "Oh, I know all about them. They're chick lit. Just girl stuff." He hadn't heard of the authors, he didn't know the books, but he saw they were written by women, and he dismissed them.

Hamlet said, "Words, words, words" as if they were meaningless, but I know they're not. People used to quote "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me" at me, but what could be more untrue? In essence, we are nothing but language, everything I am or think is expressed with words. So let's be careful what we say.


Kathy said...

Say it loud, K. Testify!

Indiana Fan said...

This touches on a lot of what I've been studying over the past year & half.
For reasons you spell out, I really do prefer the term "marginalization" (of race, creed, sex, gender, class) as what all humans should be combatting.
The old class-conscious term "History from Below" has now been replaced with "History from the Margins."
At the end of pretty much every grad class, you learn that you have to be very careful in the way that you describe things. As I've been stamping my foot about a little "words mean things" or perhaps better put "words create meaning."

Also, I was thinking about our convo about interdisciplinarity, and you mentioned that History didn't start to fall into place for you until you got serious about Art History, and I think that's where my influence may have come from as well. My mother (in school herself for an Art BFA) was so conscious of taking me to art museums when I was young, and always had her art history books out, that I think I started to get a real sense of the arc of cultural history before I had the reading comprehension for it. Which probably made my learning of history so much easier, and I would guess is a good lesson about how to convey it to the younger, more image-driven generation.

Kathy said...

Its interesting you made this connection, Indiana Fan. I'm an epidemiologist which is very much a science of explicating definitions --- its a field where the difference between "substantial" and "significant" could ruin your credibility. I try very hard to use language precisely (and well) not only for professional reasons but also because doing so decreases the odds of being misunderstood. It can be pretty amusing around here, though, when my also-epidemiologist-spouse and I begin to disagree on matters---lots of "well, when you say that the car needs gas, do you mean that all cars require fuel to operate, that I'd certainly need to refuel before driving to Florida or that the tank is, in fact, nearly empty now?"

The thing is that our collective efforts to speak clearly have value only so much as the language is understood.... the words are important, yes indeed.