The Chick-Lit Books That Won’t Destroy The Feminist Inside You

Photo: Courtesy of Penguin.
We all know Carrie Bradshaw’s origin story. She was born out of Candace Bushnell’s “Sex and the City” column in The New York Observer. The column launched in 1994 with a piece entitled “Swingin’ Sex? I Don’t Think So…

Across the pond one year later, readers of England’s The Independent became captivated by its female columnist, only this one started out as fictional from the very beginning. Helen Fielding notes that she created Bridget Jones as part of an attempt to “write an anonymous column...using an exaggerated, comic, fictional character.” She “assumed no one would read it, and it would be dropped after six weeks for being too silly.”

Now, Fielding looks back on her columns with confidence. They became best-selling books all over the world, and those books were adapted into beloved movies. The first two films grossed over $545 million at the box office, and excitement over the trailer for the third installment in Bridget’s saga, Bridget Jones’ Baby, reached a fever pitch when it was released last week.

Bridget Jones’ Diary offers a stark and honest portrayal of a woman’s internal monologue, which includes insecurities about her appearance, career, and romantic life. She’s quick to dismiss when Mark Darcy constantly pops up in her life, thinking he’s only there to mock her repeated foibles. Since the book is based on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, a tale in which the strong-willed, ahead-of-her-time Elizabeth Bennet is allowed to choose her own husband (yes, she must be granted this privilege by her father, but it represents one small step/giant leap for womankind in the 1800s), one would think Bridget Jones’ Diary would be hailed as a triumph of ‘90s feminism.

That isn’t entirely the case. Many critics of BJD were quick to point out that Bridget is often depicted as a damsel in distress, waiting for her “knight on a white charger” to come in and rescue her. Plus, a woman’s quest to find a man is at the core of both Pride and Prejudice and Bridget Jones’ Diary.

There’s been a feminist debate about chick lit pretty much since the name for the genre was first coined by Cris Mazza in 1995. “Chick lit is an uneasy term that has been criticized for its derogatory, condescending overtones, while the convention for its apparent perpetuation of stereotypical notions of neurotic, insecure, shopping-obsessed, and husband-hunting feminine identity. While to the readers, they appear to be packed with acute critical observations and convincing portrayals of their own experience, chick-lit fictions have often been accused by feminist critics of breeding backlash rhetoric, disguised in stories about successful women and postfeminist grads par excellence,” Katarzyna Smyczyńska writes in 2007's The World According to Bridget Jones.

Can feminist ideals exist within a chick-lit framework? I posit this as someone who likes both of those things. I’ve read a lot of novels geared towards women that follow in the literary tradition of Bridget Jones, and yes, I have found that female characters with power, agency, and a refusal to be defined by a quest for a partner do exist.

These are their stories. (Oh, and warning: spoilers ahead.)
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Photo: Courtesy of Penguin.
Bridget Jones’ Diary (1996)
By Helen Fielding

This can be debated until the end of days, but a book focusing solely on one woman’s quest to find personal contentment, which for her means love, career success, and body acceptance, is what feminism (no matter which wave) is about.
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Little Altars Everywhere (1998), The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (1996), Ya-Yas in Bloom (2006), The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder (2009)
By Rebecca Wells

Four best friends who are closer than sisters get into all sorts of hijinks as young girls, and then stand by each other as they become adults. These are strong, complex characters at their finest.
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Photo: Courtesy of Random House.
Summer Sisters (1998)
By Judy Blume

This is another book that should be required reading if you've ever had a friendship so powerful, its potential dissolution makes you feel like the world is crumbling around you. The Bildungsroman, which takes Victoria Leonard from New Mexico to Harvard, is one with which many readers will identify.
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Photo: Courtesy of Broadway Books.
Jemima J: A Novel About Ugly Ducklings and Swans (2000)
By Jane Green

The long journey to self-acceptance and self-love is often riddled with thorns. In Jemima J, the protagonist is a British writer who’s smart, witty, and talented, but her weight is holding her back — both personally and professionally. It’s the dawn of the internet age, so Jemima turns to web chat rooms to find friends and potential romantic companions, since the computer allows her to hide behind virtual anonymity.

Eventually Brad, one of the men with whom Jemima connects online, wants to meet in real life. Jemima has created a whole fictional personal ad in which she calls herself "JJ," and she decides to make herself over into JJ before meeting Brad, a gym owner. Jemima joins a gym, dyes her hair blonde, and goes on an extreme diet, losing over 100 pounds before she travels to Los Angeles to meet the guy.

Once she meets Brad, though, Jemima realizes that her fixation on being thin and meeting another supposedly physically perfect specimen is just masking a larger issue. Being thin and in a relationship with someone as objectively attractive as Brad isn’t going to make Jemima happy. Instead, she needs to disconnect her feelings towards her body from those connected more deeply with her self-esteem. Yep, this is a whole “learning to love yourself” novel (with a dash of happy romance at the end), but it cuts much more deeply than many others in the same genre.
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Photo: Courtesy of Riverhead Books.
High Maintenance (2001)
By Jennifer Belle

The borderline nihilistic, dry, and snarky writing style of High Maintenance isn’t for everyone. Nor is protagonist Liv Kellerman, who at first seems extremely superficial and obsessed with the trappings of wealth and keeping up appearances. Once you adapt to her high level of self-confidence and assertiveness (yes, it takes some adjusting to get used to her voice), you realize that it coexists with an underlying vulnerability that's working just as hard to make this powerful female operate in cold, hard New York City.
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Photo: Courtesy of Simon & Schuster.
In Her Shoes (2002)
By Jennifer Weiner

Sisters Rose and Maggie Feller have nothing in common except their love of fine footwear and the fact that their feet are the same size. Beyond that, their lives have diverged completely. Rose attended Princeton undergrad and the University of Pennsylvania Law School, and she now works at a corporate law firm in Philadelphia. Maggie, who is extremely beautiful, suffers from dyslexia and therefore has never been able to hold down a steady job. She’s envious of Rose’s academic and professional success. Rose envies her sister’s good looks and ease with relationships.

But this isn’t a story about Maggie teaching Rose how to be more accepting of her looks and her body. Nor is it one in which Rose teaches Maggie to overcome her learning disability, get a job, and live on her own without seeking external validation from men. The latter does happen, but it’s something Maggie accomplishes after she destroys her relationship with her sister by sleeping with Rose’s boyfriend.

In Her Shoes does include Rose finding love with a fellow lawyer, but that’s not what moves the story forward. Instead, the plot focuses on two sisters who were forced to deal with a traumatic event (the death of their mother) at a very young age. The loss left them incapable of surviving without one another.
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Photo: Courtesy of Red Dress Ink.8
Up & Out (2003)
By Ariella Papa

Rebecca Cole created a beloved animated children’s character named Esme and sold the rights to a TV station. At the time, the TV execs seemed to be well-intentioned about how they would develop Esme into a show. Rebecca even rose through the ranks at the TV station and maintained creative control over Esme as she made her debut on television.

Unfortunately, the corporate overlords want to change Esme, making her edgier and more hip. If Rebecca doesn’t agree to these changes, she’s going to get fired. She’s staked her entire life’s work on Esme — and now that Rebecca is executive producer of the show, several other people’s livelihoods depend on her as well.

When Rebecca does get fired, it feels like her life just blew up in her face. Sure, this book has the usual “woman takes up running amid a thirtysomething life crisis” thread, but it also follows a successful creative trying to find her mojo again after an extreme setback.
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Photo: Courtesy of HarperCollins.
Queen of Babble (2006), Queen of Babble in the Big City (2007), Queen of Babble Gets Hitched (2008)
By Meg Cabot

This is one you have to stick with for all three books if you want to see the female-empowerment arc emerge. If you just read Queen of Babble, you’ll find a frothy tale about Lizzie Nicols meeting an actual Prince Charming in the form of a European aristocrat whose family owns a friggin’ chateau in France. This story is interspersed with chapters in which Lizzie, an aspiring wedding dress designer, details the history of weddings and various wedding traditions in a way that leaves you wondering — does she feel weddings reinforce patriarchal traditions, or does she dream of having her own stereotypically "magical" nuptials one day?

It’s in the third act (and by that I mean Queen of Babble Gets Hitched) that readers find sweet, sweet feminist redemption. Lizzie becomes a business owner. She restores wedding dresses, obviously, because this is still very much a tale of wish fulfillment. She decides to ditch her perfect-on-paper European fiancé, realizing he’s not the partner with whom she envisions spending the rest of her life.

When Lizzie does find love, she’s not actively looking for it, and she has done a complete 180 from the romantic version of herself readers met in the first book. When the marriage question comes up again, she’s not even interested, nor does she even want the big wedding she once envisioned. For Lizzie, what matters now is being in a relationship of equals with someone who supports her vision of the future (because being a small business owner in New York City is no small feat).
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