Chick-lit, Science and Feminism?

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Synopsis

There is a new breed of chick-lit novels being penned by scholars that has the potential to both entertain and empower.

For many women, there's nothing that makes for a better beach or airport read than a fun chick-lit novel. They are vacation must-haves. But are they bad for us? That's what one study claims.

A study published in the journal Body Image in 2013 suggested reading chick-lit can make women feel bad about their bodies and in turn, lower their self-esteem. The research, conducted by Melissa J. Kaminski and Robert G. Magee, involved giving 150 college-age women excerpts from two popular chick-lit novels, one version altered by the researchers, and rating how they felt about themselves after reading them. In short, the women who read versions with slimmer, more conventionally attractive characters reported feeling more concerned about their own weight. The Washington Post online reported on the story and thus it received considerably more attention that it otherwise may have -- most small-scale academic research studies never make their way into the public domain.

Whether or not the study was flawed or biased is open for debate, but the point that chick-lit may do harm, is probably fair enough. We know from research in sociology and psychology that media culture plays a significant role in how girls and women feel about themselves, with regards to body image and self-esteem. For example, the American Psychological Association has claimed that the routine objectification of women's bodies in commercial culture has caused a national epidemic of self-objectification.

It is in this context that some lament that the "chick lit" genre is necessarily damaging to female readers. However, there is a new breed of chick-lit novels being penned by scholars that has the potential to both entertain and empower. It may actually be good for us.

Feminist scholars from the social sciences are turning to fiction as a means of sharing their research. The result, chick lit that is intended to educate and empower as much as to entertain.

This isn't happening in a vacuum. There's a big movement in the research community towards arts-based research, which involves researchers in any field using the creative arts in order to make their research findings more engaging and accessible to the public. Traditional research reports are about as exciting as car manuals. What's worse, they're overloaded with jargon and circulate in highly specialized journals so very few people have the opportunity to read them. Arts-based research, a term first coined by Elliot Eisner at Stanford University in the early 90s, is based on the assumption that art can teach us in ways that other forms cannot. Scholars can take interview or survey research, for instance, and represent it through art.

Some are turning to novel writing. Some yet, label their work "social fiction" to distinguish it from traditional fiction and point to the social research that informed it.

Not only does using fiction make research available to broader audiences, but it can actually help readers learn more. In fact, there's a field called "literary neuroscience" that examines how literature impacts our brains. There have been several recent studies that show reading fiction in particular can impact us deeply. For instance, in research reported on by NPR, Natalie Phillips has shown that Jane Austen novels engage the entire brain, allowing us to get immersed in what we are reading. Gregory Currie published an op-ed in The New York Times suggesting literary fiction may actually improve our moral sensibility and social intelligence. A study published in the journal Brain Connectivity (12/9/2013) even suggests that there is heightened connectivity in our brains for days after reading a novel.

The question is, why are some feminist scholars turning to the chick-lit genre in particular?

The beauty of the kind of learning that can happen through fiction or any of the arts is that we enjoy the process. It's fun. It's also disarming. We aren't defensive when we pick up a novel in the same way we might be with a scholarly article or textbook. Therefore, it makes sense for feminist scholars to adapt a genre and style of writing that many women already enjoy. But it's even more effective to do so than one might realize.

We know from the study of narrative that there are some commonly told or "master" narratives that reappear in literature and are usually standard fare in particular genres. For example, H. Porter Abbot has explained that Cinderella stories are routinely re-imagined in our culture. As a result, these master narratives carry great emotional capital for readers. We are predisposed to buy into them and be moved by them.

It is for this reason that feminist scholars are wise to tap into the emotional capital and familiarity of chick-lit and then subvert the form from within. In this way the genre can be used to deliver content that inspires self and social reflection. Instead of drowning in low self-esteem and succumbing to poor body image, maybe the heroines in this breed of beach-read actually reflect how readers are feeling and then model realistic and positive growth that doesn't shy away from the complexity and messiness that characterizes real life. The narrative adapts the traditional tale to hook readers, but then veers from it. For instance, the heroine may not end up with a guy; she may not even want him. Perhaps she ends up in a better relationship with herself and if readers identify with her they can aspire to the same.

Within this context, chick-lit may actually be good for us.

Not convinced, think about this: what would the impact be if an older female singer-songwriter proclaimed to be feminist? Now consider the impact, especially on young women, of Beyoncé donning a glittery body suit and standing in front of a glowing feminist sign. There is something quite powerful about taking an accepted and enjoyable commercial format and trying to subvert it from within. At the very least, you can make an impression and get people thinking.

 

Patricia Leavy, Ph.D. received the 2014 Special Achievement Award from the American Creativity Association for her work pioneering fiction as a research practice and the ground-breaking Social Fictions book series which houses her novels Low-Fat Love and American Circumstance. Please visit www.sensepublishers.com to purchase her novels with automatic free shipping and use promo code 192837 for 25% off paperbacks).

 

This article was originally published in The Huffington Post 9/29/2014 under a different title Our Brains on Chick-Lit 

Tags: feminism, fiction, patricia leavy, reading, self-esteem, self-image, social fiction

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