Bridget Jones’s Mandate

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H ave you seen this girl? She shops, talks, slogs through life, wielding her sense of humor like an itty-bitty knife. She specializes in the small: the muttered joke, TV references, lipstick names, and the analysis of every hilly rise and dip of emotion. She is the second- or third-best-looking girl at the party. At work, The Bitch (a.k.a. the best-looking woman) takes credit for her hard work. But it’s just as well because, as it turns out, only a second- or third-best-looking girl is decent enough for an intelligent, funny, dark-haired man to make her whole with his love, and show her that her true voice is the one she’s always had — small, cute, neurotic, basically incompetent and not so ultimately important, but still good.
   Sound familiar? If you’ve read any chick-lit novel whose birth was predated by that of Bridget Jones, it should.
   Chick lit is the hot-selling literary genre (The Nanny Diaries, The Devil Wears Prada) about and for today’s lukewarmest of girls, set in the period of life in which one experiences silly lust and funny failures while waiting for The Real Thing. I’d thought these plucky tales — about the two to ten years between daddy and husband, and all the shoes bought and sex had in that wacky time of confusing freedom — would eventually stop being published. But this spring, chick-lit releases are at an all-time high. Nerve assigned me to read nearly a dozen.
   I’d heard how racy and sex-obsessed the genre is, but it seems to me the race is entered and exited at exactly the same points each time. Chick-lit heroines talk about sex, and occasionally they have it, yet it’s never because they want it, never because they have to have it or they’ll die, even though it’s wrong and there will be hell to pay. Nor is there no hell at all to pay — the kind of sex you just wanted and took, then zipped up or fell unconscious. Nor is it married sex: predictable, satisfying and scheduled. No, chick-lit sex is some sort of subtext for societal temperature-taking. Brr!
   For example: in Karen McCullah Lutz’s The Bachelorette Party, a nineteen-year-old boy lifts his shirt to prove that he is a model for Abercrombie & Fitch. These are the thoughts (saucy but never sick) of our thirty-year-old heroine (who’s cute but not too beautiful): "Washboard abs, goddammit. My favorite kind."
   Okay, who doesn’t like washboard abs? And what kind of original expression is washboard abs? It’s not literature; nor is it pornography, which is unoriginal but at least it’s hard and wet, not safe lunchroom gossip lust. Check out page one — one! — of the plumber story in a recent issue of my favorite magazine, Mandate:

      "That’s a big wrench you’ve got there," I said.
      "Everything I’ve got is big," he said.
      I took that as a cue and ran my tongue over my lower lip.
      He spread his legs and grabbed his crotch bulge.
      "Oh yeah," I sighed.

   But I digress. No chick-lit heroine has ever been a plumber, or a fucker of plumbers. She is a hesitant editor or English teacher

Pubic hair grooming, and the public discussion of pubic hair grooming, are the new norm.

or does something behind-the-scenes and language-oriented in the fashion industry. (She’s the makeup-namer.) She’s witty, but never cruel. Her book is never too big — not in style nor ideas nor page count. Her view of sex is cute and punchline-friendly. Think Sex and the City, without the visceral relief of Patricia Field costumes and a thirty-minute cap. In Cherries in the Snow: A Novel of Lust, Love, Loss, and Lipstick, Emma Forrest has her character compare scrubbing dishes to trying to make a girl come (i.e., not knowing what’s too hard or too soft). This is supposed to connote two fascinating facets of her personality: that she at least once tried to go down on a girl (hot!) and that she’s generally incompetent (cute!). In The Grrl Genius Guide to Sex (with Other People): A Self-Help Novel, author Cathryn Michon is Joan Rivers, having accidentally ingested a plateful of chick-lit cookies. "When I became a genius," Michon declares in the introduction, "I found out a lot of things about the oppression of women that has occurred over the last few thousand years. The first thing I found out was: It was bad!" Sheesh.
   All chick-lit protagonists straddle the liberated/slut line — all pretty much in the same way. And how, of course, can liberated be liberated when it’s so incredibly conformist? It’s just the new status quo — and anyone deviating from the newly drawn line in one direction or another is still a prude or a freak. But when the book is ostentatiously, outright about sex, and the author really thinks she’s liberated and she’s going to liberate other women with openness, that’s the worst of all.
In Natalie Krinsky’s Chloe Does Yale, the title character has countless discussions with her female friends, dissecting every possible nuance of testicular depilation, anal sex and various ways people kiss badly, such as the dreaded "Black & Decker tongue." They congratulate themselves on being bold enough to go on and on about balls and anuses and technique. But neither sex nor liberation is in any of these points. Pubic-hair grooming, and the public discussion of pubic-hair grooming, are the new norm. Chloe and friends display their in-ness, nothing more.

   And must every girl have a cat and a demented-yet-ultimately wise grandmother figure? Argh!
   Elizabeth McKenzie’s Stop That Girl is the only one of this bunch that approaches being a real book, meaning that something would be lost in translation to the screen. (I feel like I already saw Alyson Noel’s Faking 19 in the movies Thirteen and Crazy/Beautiful.) Stop examines how a chaotic childhood destroys a tender soul: you look okay at first, but once you’re in charge of your own life, the destruction starts leaking out in weird actions. I would actually have enjoyed its delicate, timid exploration of being frightened and frozen, if I hadn’t already read it in The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing.
   Harlequin Romances and sci-fi and porn may be formulaic, but at least they admit what they are. Publicists don’t call them "complex," "brave," "honest," "rare comedic novels." Consider the description on the back of Louise Bagshawe’s The Go-To Girl, which could apply to nine-tenths of all chick lit: "In beauty-crazed London, with a dead-end job and a dead-beat boyfriend, Anna Brown wonders if she can ever become a success. Enter Mark Swan — rugged, reclusive, Britain’s hottest director. He could be Anna’s ticket to the top, but how can she ever hope to snag such a big star? With a little help from her friends, Anna embarks on a madcap scheme to get what she wants."
   If only there were any chance that Anna’s "madcap scheme" involved going to another country and forgoing Mark Swan, Britain’s hottest director, for a crazed affair with a balding, one-legged tour guide — an affair that goes nowhere and perhaps leads to an unrelated adventure in which Anna saves a donkey and maybe loses a leg of her own — then The Go-To Girl would go straight to my little sister.

As a young girl, I loved all things girl. But I also wanted to leap out of Girl, maybe into Pirate.

   Instead, its message is chick lit to the core: dishonest, even dangerous. It tells women that the yearning in their soul can be filled by the love and acceptance of a man. First of all, to have the yearning in your soul answered is death. Secondly, definitely not by a man! He could wake up one day in love with somebody else, and take all your answers with him! Thirdly, these books are telling us to accept ourselves as girls, just as we are. That’s not enough.
   As a young girl, I loved all things girl. But I also was possessed by an ill-defined longing to leap right out of Girl, maybe into Pirate. I fancied myself amoral, sadistic, ambitious. I wanted to have a wife and children and then abandon them because I had a burning inside me. I wanted to rape and steal and hate. Of course I never did — they were just fantasies. But they’re also part of what make us human: the vile, wrong sexual feelings; the urge to destroy just as much as the desire to be rescued. If being a girl doesn’t include everything the rest of humanity gets, then I don’t want any part of it.
   No literary movement before this one has ever made me angry. People’s taste is none of my business. But this shit is being marketed to young girls, who are already getting weak enough ideas from other media about what being a girl means — why should the few who read be plowed under, too?
    I’d like to take all these books, pile them up and throw gasoline and a lit match onto them. And let my daughter, and all the other girls, see if they can walk into the fire barefoot. Maybe they can’t do it, and maybe they’ll cry and get hurt and go to the hospital. But some of them will succeed. Either way, they deserve to see what they are made of, before they lay down their fierceness and accept what the rest of the world tells them they are, and more debilitatingly, what they are not.
   These are the books I want a young girl to find, all on her own — not clustered together on Barnes & Noble’s Young Girl section, shoved down her throat by a manager shitting out what was shoved down his throat by an army of publicists who know where their bread is buttered: Me by Brenda Ueland; Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier by Alexandra Fuller; and Dune Life by the National Audubon Society.
   That’s a short list, but I’ll stop there. Girls shouldn’t spend all their time reading. They should be too busy risking death and disapproval, someplace entirely different than the physical and psychological place they grew up in and already know how to navigate.
   This is what I would tell young girls: life is big. It’s volcanic. It’s excruciating. It’s all you have, and then you’re dead. Dead! Forever! I mean, maybe you’ll fail. But failure should be big too. I despise — I spit on — this acceptance of a nearsighted life! I’d tell her: Don’t listen to anyone. You are a god. And gods are, at certain angles, terrible things to be. Don’t ever let anyone tell you you’re not terrible. Don’t be cute. It’s not enough. You’re better than that — better, and worse.  

Lisa Carver is the author of the books Dancing Queen, Rollerderby, The Lisa Diaries and Drugs Are Nice. She’s written for Hustler, Index, Icon, Feed, Newsday and Playboy, among others. She lives in New Hampshire.