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Bad romance

‘Chick lit,’ or popular fiction which featured and appealed to (post)modern women, became a bestselling genre in the 1990s. Girly pop classics like Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones Diary and Candace Bushnell’s Sex and the City explored the challenges and contradictions of juggling careers and relationships in the post-feminist age. Although it was supposed to speak to the contemporary dilemmas of the modern woman, 90s chick lit generally softened its wry social observations with self-deprecating humour. It explored the new gendered problem of ‘having it all’ while rolling out the traditional romance formula of ‘good girl meets bad boy’. Even more recent romance blockbusters, like Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight, typically feature innocent or sadomasochistic heroines falling for rich, powerful or dangerous men.

In recent years however, there has been a significant shift in the fiction that appeals to women, reflecting wider cultural changes in the way men and women relate to each other in neoliberal, post-feminist times. The new chick lit is far more daring, dark and subversive. It reflects back the harsh realities of an increasingly competitive and individualistic post-GFC economy and society. While chick lit still addresses the dilemmas of being a modern woman, it increasingly includes noir elements, merging with crime fiction and psychological thrillers. There is a new woman in popular fiction and she is nobody’s fool. This new-style femme fatale doesn’t just get mad – she gets even. Unlike the traditional romance that ends with happy heterosexual resolution, these new anti-romance thrillers climax with a cathartic act of vengeance and a crime that goes unpunished. Invariably, there will be blood.

Spawned by Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, the ‘mother’ of new-style noir, a rush of anti-romance thrillers, with tough non-traditional female anti-heroes, is moving up bestseller lists. They include Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train, ASA Harrison’s The Silent Wife, Mary Kubica’s Pretty Baby, Liane Moriarty’s The Husband’s Secret, Harriet Lane’s Her, and Keep Your Friends Close by Paula Daly. These domestic psychological thrillers, with new noir elements, are frequently marketed as the next Gone Girl. The leading new ‘crazy chick’ on the block, however, is The Girl on the Train, which spent months at the top of bestseller lists last year. The best and most believable of the genre may be ASA Harrison’s The Silent Wife, which is also a tale of familial betrayal and revenge.

The cultural impact of these narratives, and what they tell us about postmodern femininity, deserves further investigation. What makes these thrillers about, by and for women such compulsive reading is that they deal with the often ugly realities of postmodern relationships from a woman’s perspective. Casting off the confines of traditional romance and chick lit, they expose how women are vulnerable to fear, anxiety, envy and anger in ways that men are not. The women in these stories are overworked and undervalued, harassed and betrayed, deceived and dumped by new waves of sexual and cultural ‘freedom’. While the female characters in these novels are constantly confronted with choices, few of these ‘choices’ are easy or enjoyable. Conflict is inevitable here as the protagonists’ freedom to ‘choose’ runs up against the freedom of men and the choices of other women. Hence, these domestic thriller narratives share a common preoccupation with infidelity, and how it is carried and enabled both by new communication technologies and by a culture that has abandoned old moral boundaries. ‘Trust no one’, least of all your husband or lover, seems to be the message here.

Tense relationships between women are also a common feature in these perverse morality tales, as individual women are thrown into ruthless competition for jobs, money, men and attention. In The Husband’s Secret and Keep Your Friends Close, the heroine’s husband is stolen by her best friend. While she is distracted by the thankless grind of domestic labour, the female protagonist is betrayed by those closest to her. In Her, a stressed and depressed mother is set upon by a control freak career woman who turns out to be her worst ‘frenemy’. In Gone Girl, The Silent Wife and The Girl on the Train, the weak-willed husband is seduced by a younger or more fertile woman with no sense of morality, solidarity or empathy for other women. In this neoliberal, post-feminist culture, it is, apparently, every woman for herself.

On one level, such texts are politically subversive, in their portrayal of women pushed to the limits of their wits, patience and biological clocks. After all, if everyone in the culture is a free, self-actualising agent, with no responsibility for anyone but themselves and their children, the logical result is real and symbolic violence. As The Girl on the Train observes: ‘Who was it said that following your heart is a good thing. It is pure egotism, a selfishness to conquer all. Hatred floods me. If I saw that woman now, if I saw Jess, I would spit in her face. I would scratch her eyes out.’

Perhaps the most challenging and exciting commonality of this genre is the way these mostly female writers are weaving both feminist and post-feminist ideas into their female-centred storylines. They have dared to explain and present likeable female leads who are also complex, angry and at times downright crazy. Historically, indignant, straight-talking, strong women have been dismissed and silenced as ‘bitter’ or ‘unfeminine.’ Angry women are frequently represented as undesirable and untrustworthy. Even in the age of internet pornography, where all secret desires are on display, female anger is still largely taboo.

Yet when modern life frequently fails to live up to the high expectations we were raised on, all that anger, resentment and despair has to go somewhere. Female ambition, anger and even hate have been lent a new legitimacy in popular fiction. In new-noir domestic thrillers, the cultural and individual problems of contemporary women are pulled out, explained and explored without shame or sugar coating. The novel presents a safe and pleasurable way of working through common personal and cultural problems, at one step removed. Inner fears and secret desires can be given shape in the lives of fictitious female leads who present an alternative to traditional feminine passivity. This rise of revenge fantasies channels an undercurrent of female resentment which has few outlets for expression in our culture. There is still something inherently transgressive about identifying with manipulative and violent heroines who aggressively refuse to accept the roles and the hand they are dealt in life. We want them to fight back and ‘get away with it’ and in the world of the novel, they do.

The huge commercial success of this new genre suggests women are looking for an alternative to ‘perfectionist porn’ in pop culture. There is a relentless focus in most women’s magazines, for example, on self-improvement, self-management, ‘wellbeing’ and hard work, in all aspects of modern life. The new woman is expected to be a self-sacrificing mother, self-actualising sage, multitasking career woman and sexy porn star all rolled into one. Having it all, however, has its price, especially in an increasingly competitive context. In some ways, the standards of behaviour, burdens and expectations placed on contemporary women are even more repressive than in previous generations. Worse, the perfect woman is not permitted to complain about it. At work and at home the modern woman is still expected to swallow it all with a serene smile, like a professional. It’s no accident then that the heroine of new-noir domestic thrillers, like Gone Girl and The Silent Wife, is often a perfectionist who has cracked under the pressure of other people’s expectations. Her breakdown, reinvention and recovery plays out against a backdrop of twenty-first century information obscenity, where online dating, Facebook competition and family disintegration is only a click away. It is a timely and potent reminder that in actuality women are not, and should not be expected to be, perfect. Life is not always Instagram beautiful and the home is not always a safe haven. The black comedy of new noir chick lit is often an eloquent satire on modern life, which, beneath glittering facades, is frequently corrupt, unpredictable and irrational.

There is no innocence in this fictitious universe of the anti-romance novel, as almost every female character is wrestling with some kind of humiliation or betrayal. Working harder and smarter, being thinner and fitter is not the answer presented here. The only solution presented in the anti-romance novel is calculated revenge. Even dutiful perfectionism, such as initially displayed by ‘Amazing Amy’ (Gone Girl), and the similarly beautiful, accomplished and intelligent Jodi Brett (The Silent Wife), is not enough to protect the heroine from losing her man, her home and her career in a ruthlessly competitive market. Even the confident career woman is thrown back upon the more traditional ‘feminine’ arts of manipulation, plotting and performance. Winning, in the new economy and in the new marriage market, is apparently about successful image management. The perverse pleasure of the thriller draws not just from shocking twists and turns, but from the resilient anti-heroine who beats her rivals at their own game.

Of course, the femme fatale has been a seductive figure in film for decades. She appeared in classic 1940s film noir such as Out of the Past, Double Indemnity and the Postman Always Rings Twice. She reappeared more recently in the 1980s in Fatal Attraction and in the 1990s in Basic Instinct. The new-noir chick lit, however, differs from classic film noir in that it presents a more realistic, holistic and sympathetic portrayal of the complexities and contradictions of postmodern femininity. Whereas in traditional film noir the femme fatale is symbolically punished for her transgressions, in the new-noir chick lit, the angry woman emerges triumphant on the strength of her own cunning intelligence and determination. Rather than being punished, she literally gets away with murder. What we take from these books then is pleasure from both the fall (crisis) and the recovery (revenge) of the quintessential modern woman who wants it all. This popular new heroine is not willing to go quietly but protects what is hers, by any means necessary.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom that we read fiction to avoid reality, the success of new noir can be attributed to its confronting portrayal of certain uncomfortable truths. Central to the action in these contemporary female-oriented thrillers is the invasive and sometimes sinister social role of the smartphone and social media. Narratives about competition, fear, anxiety, manipulation and revenge are played out here through postmodern mediated forms. As Rachel, the lead character of The Girl on the Train puts it: ‘I found out the way everyone seems to find out these days: an electronic slip. Sometimes it’s a text or a voicemail message; in my case it was an email, the modern lipstick on the collar.’ The female protagonist is frequently wrestling with the ugly side of ubiquitous communication, instant messaging and social media. In the networked world of the new thriller, bored unfaithful husbands trawl social media for lost loves, lonely mistresses and embittered ex-partners harass via text, while wives stumble upon incriminating emails. The ties that bind breadwinners to home and hearth are more fragile than ever and all relationships become a precarious, day-by-day concern. If the modern relationship requires constant electronic work, the burden of this 24/7 unpaid labour also seems to fall disproportionately onto women. The Girl on the Train reminds us that texting, tracking and networking is not nearly so much fun as it was supposed to be, especially for women. Stalking, harassment, impersonation and misrepresentation are part of the modern bad romance.

The balance of power between men and women explored in these novels is often delineated in terms of the power to represent (or misrepresent) the self and others. In the end, social success in the neoliberal economy seems to come down to who is the best liar. Gone Girl famously pushes these ideas to their extreme but logical conclusion. These postmodern truisms of contemporary relationships and social life were rarely explored in traditional 1990s chick lit. By contrast, the new-noir chick lit recognises the role of new technologies in relationship breakdown and intimate violence.

These anti-romance novels also reflect a tragic reality of modern life: you are far more likely to be assaulted and even killed by your partner or ex-partner than by a stranger on the street. Acts of violence, humiliation, degradation are a daily reality for many women. Many more live with economic insecurity, fear, anxiety, resentment and frustration perpetuated by ongoing social and economic inequality between men and women. Despite some advances in the workplace, modern women are still expected to shoulder the burden of ‘emotional labour’ in their private lives. Women, especially women with children, are still more at risk of financial ruin when relationships turn sour. Despite decades of apparent liberation, heterosexual women are still pressured to coax their reluctant partners toward fatherhood, marriage and domesticity. And it is still women who are charged with holding home and family together when the cracks inevitably appear.

Against such a cultural backdrop, the success of new-noir writing, which dares to make the connection between romance and murder, is not so surprising. What is surprising is how these narratives also capture the contradictions of postfeminist culture. These books may be interpreted as feminist in that they challenge us to reinterpret the happy home and stable marriage as a patriarchal myth. But they are also postfeminist, in that they recognise that everyone is implicated in a twenty-first century web of lies, illusions, performances, images and deceit. Right and wrong is a fluid concept in these seductive stories of intimate betrayal and intimate revenge. In these novels, even the narrator cannot be trusted. While the heroine or anti-heroine often profits from crime and murder, even her moral culpability is thrown into question. Although the solutions offered by these novels are symbolic or ‘magical’ (violent crime rarely pays for women in real life), the problems they address (inequality, uncertainty, betrayal and resentment) are very real for many, perhaps the majority, of female readers.

Most famously, Gillian Flynn uses Gone Girl to expose the myth of the ‘cool girl’, or the feminine facade women put up to meet misogynistic expectations about the ideal woman of our age:

Being the cool girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.

Of course, the strong and complex female lead of the anti-romance thriller is the very antithesis of the cool girl dupe – rather, she is as mad as hell and she’s not going to take it anymore. Even the passive-aggressive protagonist in The Silent Wife observes: ‘Without some discreet retaliation to balance things out, a little surreptitious tit for tat to keep grievance at bay, most relationships – hers included – would surely combust in a blaze of resentment.’ The Silent Wife starts by hiding her husband’s keys but soon moves to take more serious action. In the elegant Her, Harriet Lane also painstakingly explores the mixed feelings even middle-aged and middle-class mothers hold against their precious children, and the children of other women. Suffocated by domesticity, the protagonist’s lazy and demanding husband becomes merely ‘someone else pawing at me, wanting something’, and her ungrateful children are a burden as much as a blessing. Between partners and between friends, envy, insecurity and hatred circulates, even in ‘respectable’ homes.

Similarly, The Girl on the Train suggests that behind the modern facade of the happy couple lurks a perpetual and spiteful power struggle. Like the female lead of Gone Girl, the protagonist in The Girl on the Train has lost her job and relationship and is cut adrift in the misery and moral chaos of uncertain, changing times. In The Girl on the Train and The Silent Wife the heroine is particularly disoriented by the loss or potential loss of her home to another woman, a home she has spent much time and energy perfecting. Indeed, it is the associated loss of real estate, more than loss of the relationship itself, which finally pushes the Silent Wife over the edge.

Although it is rarely touched on in book reviews, these novels speak to feminine anxieties not just about gender, but about status and social class. The protagonist in The Girl on the Train, for example, is particularly devastated by her transition from home owner to an unwanted guest in a shared house. Due in part to persistent inequality in pay and promotion, even working Girl, like working Wife, cannot maintain her standard of living without her male partner. An unreliable, unfaithful husband combined with downward social mobility leave the female protagonist floundering.

The working mothers in The Husband’s Secret, Pretty Baby and Keep Your Friends Close are also stressed, exhausted and pulled apart by the pressures of multiple roles and commitments. Danger lurks at every turn, mostly in the form of husbands and lovers who are not what they first appear. Men are frequently portrayed as selfish, childish and changeable – typically it is the woman who is left to ‘man’ the sinking ship of home and marriage. In this sense these narratives build on second-wave feminist understandings that the personal is political. Far from being a safe sanctuary from the outside world, the home is where gender power imbalances are reproduced and reinforced. The banal middle-class suburban home is reimagined as a battleground of confrontation, conflict, fear, resentment, frustration, insecurity and domestic violence. It seems the ideal marriage, like the ideal man, is a patriarchal fabrication which does women more harm than good. On top of this, third-wave feminist understandings about the contradictions and complexities of postmodern life are layered. Everyone, we are reminded, is complicit in these webs of power and illusion, including and especially other women. The question put to the ‘knowing’ reader is, will you play up to the image or will you crash through it? The message for tough times is that it is better to be remembered for being ‘bad’ or ‘mad’ than to be left behind as a helpless victim.

The remarkable popularity of chick lit thrillers is a sign of the times. Unlike more traditional romance fiction, which followed a predictable formula, the twisting plots of these anti-romance thrillers capture the moral chaos of modern life. Sadly, despite decades of feminist advancement, the modern woman does not have it all. Rather she is expected to be all things to all people for increasingly diminishing returns. Of course it is too much to expect a work of art, a novel, to solve the persistent problem of inequality between the sexes. It is perhaps enough that the new noir offers its mostly female readers the consolation of knowing they are not alone in their secret desires, revenge fantasies and guilty pleasures. It’s not you, the book whispers, it’s them, and they got what was coming to them.

 

Paula Hawkins, author of The Girl on the Train, is appearing at the Sydney Writers Festival, Saturday 21 May 3:00 PM – 4:00 PM.

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Image: Toshiyuki IMAI/Flickr

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Susan Hopkins is a Lecturer in the Open Access College at the University of Southern Queensland, Ipswich campus. Her research interests include sociological approaches to the education of disadvantaged groups including incarcerated students as well as critical cultural studies and media representations of gender, sexuality, feminism and empowerment. She also serves as a Harassment and Diversity Contact Officer for staff as part of her service work role.

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  1. Quote: “…reflecting wider cultural changes in the way men and women relate to each other in neoliberal, post-feminist times. The new chick lit is far more daring, dark and subversive. It reflects back the harsh realities of an increasingly competitive and individualistic post-GFC economy and society.”

    I’ve never understood this viewpoint. The West has never seen bigger welfare states than it has now, nor has the politick been less progressive and less command (economically) across the board (look at NZ’s National Party welfare vote; growing every year, as is the state sector), yet I agree, our societies have never been more atomised.

    It appears obvious that it is welfare and progressivism that is breaking the bonds between individuals and families. And I can draw logical causative arguments to why that is, easily, backed up statistically. And hence the way out of alienation is back to self-reliance and unregulated individual volition, and on that base, community, from the tribalism of identity politics and this stultifying democratic majoritainism we have become tyrannously bounded by.

    And I’ve also yet to have anyone explain to me what neoliberalism means. It’s a meaningless peg to hang wrong-headed arguments from.

    I’m not questioning the new lit subversiveness. Just the deconstruction of it. Because, obviously, and unfortunately, our literary fiction, per se, is progressive controlled, from writers to publishers, and crippled to that extent in any useful addition to, or analysis of, culture, other than to a clique.

    My only wish is literature would truly become subversive, rather than the state worshipping disciple it has been tamed to via government funding and the collapse of philosophy.

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