Since when is traveling, getting over personal failures, and spiritual journeys “female”? At what point did novels that feature a female lead on a journey become “chick lit”? A genre which, as lucrative as it is, is implicitly subpar to that of the male’s journey. With the exception of CNN’s movie review that actually looked at it as just a movie, on attack now is “Eat Pray Love,” due to the Julia Roberts vehicle releasing this weekend based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Elizabeth Gilbert. The race for the boxoffice this weekend is even being set up as Estrogen vs. Testosterone (or AARP Testosterone since “The Expendables” features 60+ former action stars).
Whatever one might think of the book or the movie, to categorize it as “chick” anything is automatically a review. “Chick lit” is a derisive category. It is, or at least so I had assumed, porn for women in that juices up the gender stereotype to the full fantastical pleasure of its reader: the docile woman, the alpha male, enter the fantasy. What chick lit and chick films have become instead is a genre that dismisses all stories with a female lead as “chick.”
One of the reasons I became a writer was because I had been an avid reader, who at one point realized that so many of the stories I loved were missing my voice, namely as a non-white person and/or as a woman. Some of my favorite books deal with people who were on a journey. Problem was that all of these hero’s journeys — Razor’s Edge, Catcher in the Rye, Hamlet, Great Gatsby, On the Road, Joe August, Star Wars, Mad Max (not to mention religious stories and mythologies) — were about male heros.
Those who believe Ms. Gilbert is a “chick lit” author need to check their facts. She is primarily a highly respected journalist and award winning author of — if one is to be gendered about it all — the “male” sphere, i.e. cowboys, union leaders, mountain men (“The Last American Man“), and lobster fishing (“Stern Men“). She broke in by being the the only non-published first-time author other than Norman Mailer to have her debut in the prestigious literary section of the male magazine, “Esquire” with a short story, “Pilgrims,” about a cowboy who is dared by an East Coast transplant tough woman to run away to a new life. Her follow-up book to “EPL” is “Committed,” which talks about the socio-anthropoligcal history of marriage in an exciting new way by a woman (herself) who is very decidely “male” in her phobia to marriage.
As to the actual content of “EPL” being “female” or “wish fulfilling for women” as some reviewers suggest, let’s get some stereotypes right. First, “Julia Roberts” is not offering anything. The star herself may connote “chick flicks” but “EPL” is playing out the life of a real woman with a real story that is the dream of many people I know, myself included.
Divorced men I know would love to be able to travel as Ms. Gilbert did — eating, praying, loving, traveling across Italy, India, and Bali — as do most single people and married people, by the way. To have resources for one’s own journey of self discovery across the globe with delicious cuisine and hot men and women is wish fulfillment for every single human being with a pulse. Period.
In addition, many people across gender and socio-economic lines who have suffered from a broken heart are left quite fragile, vulnerable, and broken. If heartbreak was just for hetero women, the queue for sex change operations would be quite long. I myself have pulled friends up from bathroom floors, put them to bed when passed out from trying to forget failed relationships, and witnessed (and experienced) the messy and ugly sides of romance that leaves no gender or sexuality untainted.
Could it be that Ms. Gilbert behaves in a very unexpected non-female way — not many women have or are allowed her resources and independent spirit — that is drawing the ire? Is there something more going on that is getting under people’s skin?
Or, perhaps it is the very gendered notion that women need to communicate these feelings and experiences more, or in their unique “female” way, which is another way of saying that there are words involved more than in a Judd Apatow movie or rather than, say, burping, farting, or as the spoof to be released connotes, “Drinking, Fu*#ing, Sleeping.”
But guess what? Not only has it proven in numerous studies to be unhealthy and downright deadly for men to be so unable to communicate, but women also burp, fart, drink, are addicts, and all the rest. Women (gasp!) can also be shockingly unhealthy in their reaction to adversity — which is how “EPL” starts out. Unhealthy. To admit such unhealthiness is actually quite opposite of “chick lit.” Ms. Gilbert didn’t go shopping or have a girls’ night out. She royally messed up her life and then sought to put it back together. That is quite human.
For some male critics, she may be whiny, but have you heard white male band’s songs? Have you heard the “journey” stories of self-absorbed men who can’t commit or who can’t get over Daddy/Mommy/prom-date-dump complexes? Have you dated in New York? Get thee to Bali, for God’s sake if that’s what it takes.
Is it that women are doing the talking or what they are talking about that makes it “chick”? Women, for instance, do talk about marriage a lot because in many families and cultures, they must get married, like it or not. They talk about babies because last I heard, they were still the ones who had to get knocked up. And they’ve been divorced or killed if they don’t at times. It’s a pivotal point of life. But so is becoming a husband or a father: those stories need to be told also. Would that be “chick” if men actually had conversations about parenting?
As Sonia Sotomayor had to remind the elderly white male Congress: a women’s story and journey will be different than a man’s, not for any inherent genetic reason, but because she has been brought up differently from the time the doctor announced “you have a girl.” Within that statement lays the future responses to her by parents, families, society, teachers, peers, and the media.
Sexuality most especially will be rigorously shaped. Many women’s hero journeys will not be defined by drinking or fu*#ing to excess because if she happens to live in the very few cultures where she would even be allowed or be raised to want to do these activities, and if she is educated enough to know how to do such things safely (this greatly narrows down the population in case you were wondering), then there is still rape, pregnancy, reputation, and a whole host of considerations that come into play that have probably been imbibed into her psyche since it was announced “she’s a girl.”
So, though it may not define her solely, it’s inevitable that a woman will be shaped within that tug of war between her personality and the baggage of gender heaped on her from all sources. And guess what? Her story will be different than a man’s, and within that diversity lies the beauty of literature and cinema. New voices! New images! Fresh perspective! Not wiser, better, more romantic, less sexual, no other judgment except the promise that it will be different.
Stories need not be full of prostitutes and drugs to be considered serious literature or film. They need not be full of quiet, mysterious men and no mention of feelings or devoid of any hint of romance in order to be a real story. The right woman can pull a sword out of a stone, be the prodigal daughter who saves a kingdom, become a Jedi, take a road trip after college with stoned out artists, be a war veteran who questions life, and go through divorce and rediscover herself by eating, praying, loving, and whatever else she chooses to do.
It’s limiting for both men and women to narrow what their stories can and cannot be. Just as Ms. Gilbert told a fresh new tale of an independent woman not found on too many pages of history or literature, so it’s time for critics and publishers and producers to redefine what is and what is not “chick lit” and what is simply a hero’s journey. And like it or not as per the story, not because it features a female lead.