Though less than twenty years old, the genre of chick lit, first popularized by Helen Fielding's novel Bridget Jones's Diary (1996), has embedded itself in our cultural consciousness. By now, the tropes are familiar: a young, single woman in a big city searches for happily-ever-after, which includes but is not limited to a loving and lasting relationship, career success, and real friendship. In spite of the genre's relative newness, scholars have found strong pedagogical justifications for teaching chick lit. (1) These novels offer students opportunities to assess an emerging cultural phenomenon, consider feminism's place in popular culture, and analyze a text that engages us not just intellectually but also affectively.
Though chick lit allows for new conversations, this body of work also brings with it several challenges. In my upper-division American literature seminar on chick lit at West Chester University, part of the Pennsylvania state system, I ask students to question how these novels construct cultural meanings for romantic love, intimacy, and success. Though excited to read the books, students often struggle to detach emotionally from these novels' romantic tropes. The romantic relationship tropes that appear in these works often reflect those narratives found in wider popular culture, such as "Love at First Sight. Always a Bridesmaid. The One That Got Away. The Love of My Life" (Mamont). Having internalized these ideas about romantic love, students often identify with these "big stories." Thus, they struggle to analyze them as socially constructed fantasies. They are not the only ones. Though intellectually aware of the cultural work these tropes do, I cannot easily dispel my own lingering attachments.
After teaching this course multiple times, I have created several approaches that help students disengage from these texts, or, when they feel emotionally invested in the novels we read, to better articulate why. Modeling my own experiences with these tropes is my first tool for defamiliarizing the "realness" of intimacy found within these novels. I explain to students the difficulties I face when unpacking my emotional investment in these narratives, and name for them those stories I want to believe rather than analyze. Framing the course with my own imperfections, and a willingness to co-investigate, encourages students to do the same.
In additional to teaching strategies, I use readings to destabilize students' attachments to...