I recommend this post by Anne Helen Peterson on the new genre of “dark chick lit,” for want of a better term, such as Gone Girl and Girl on the Train, and their contrasts with the breezily optimistic ’00s novels such as Confessions of a Shopaholic, Thirty-nothing and that bygone genre’s ur-example, Bridget Jones’ Diary.
Part of what marks the differences between these two genres, besides cynicism vs. idealism, is how they treat their male subjects. In the classic ’00s beach read, the male romantic interest is some version of Mr. Darcy: aloof perhaps, and at first wary of the protagonist’s zany antics, but in the end a firm, moral, perfect gentleman. But in the latter-day novels, the men are so monstrous they wind up excusing the female main characters’ many moral failures — if not being the outright cause. In a direct reversal of ’00s chick lit, the men of dark-chick-lit start off seeming nice and likeable, only to be revealed as monsters as the work progresses.
The Cool Girl monologue in Gone Girl is held up as the defining worldview of these novels, showing how unrealistic expectations of women by the patriarchy ultimately destroys them.
“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.”
The Cool Girl should be instantly familiar to anyone who’s seen There’s Something About Mary, as that is the title character to a T. She’s thin and hot, yet is into boy stuff even more than Ben Stiller’s male protagonist is. The movie shows all of the male characters obsessing over Mary, fighting over each other for her, and ignoring all the other female characters so that they can land the Cool Girl. No surprise that her character was created by the bro-tastic Farrelly Brothers, who always showed a deep understanding of their male characters while remaining wholly ignorant of the opposite sex.
“Dark chick lit” books show the end result of this standard, with girls (and yes, it is always “girl” in the title of these works, not “woman”) destroyed by this impossible patriarchal expectation, and gaslighted to the hilt by their abusive and/or adulterous male partners. ’00s chick lit (and I hate the term, but I don’t know what else to call it) features a protagonist scared to death of remaining single, and putting all her effort into landing her Mr. Darcy; dark-chick-lit has the protagonist(s) starting off attached, only seeking the relief of singlehood and detachment from their manipulative, abusive, sometimes murderous partners as their only escape.
And on the topic of murder: the killing/disappearance/kidnapping plot in all these books is there to pump sales on Amazon, but is in the end a distraction from the real dynamic. I could have continued to read for a thousand pages the lives of the deeply imperfect Rachel, Anna and Megan in Girl on the Train without anything so dramatic as the murder to derail (pun not intended) their inner workings and force its all-too-pat conclusion. (disclaimer: I’ve only read the book and have yet to see the movie.)
For these novels, like their ’00s foils, work to make their at times dastardly female protagonists relatable to readers… only, they reflect their worst impulses, impulses that women are supposed to pretend don’t even exist, whereas the ’00s novels work to reflect the reader’s cutesy side — quirky, perhaps a bit immature, but always endearing at the end to the male knight in shining armor.
This contrast also plays out on the small screen, with Girls (yep, it’s “girl” in the title again) showing a deep cynicism as an inverse of Sex and the City’s eternal optimism. And as messed up Lena Dunham’s quartet of female protagonists are, there is nothing that suggests they should do anything but cut off all contact forever from any of the vile male characters. Mr. Big definitely showed some of the flaws in common with the evil dark-chick-lit men, but in the end, his sins were venial, not mortal; he was a good guy, as were all the men the other women wound up with. In Girls, however, neither Kylo Ren not any of the other guys should be allowed within 1000 feet of any single woman without first registering with the police.
Race also plays a huge, if unmentioned, part in this genre, as its books and shows are written specifically by and for white women. Lena Dunham in particular has garnered a reputation as a low-key racist, stating at one point that her show is there specifically to show the perspective of her white experience, in so many words. But beyond the skin color of the author is this: no culture in America is more stringent, more exclusionary, more conformist than white culture. (Blue-state white culture, anyway; redneck culture is an entirely different beast.) These works simply would not make sense with a Black or Hispanic cast. So much in white culture revolves around exclusion. Where banishing people from your social scene for abnormal behavior is the ultimate act of power and prestige, and so therefore pursing the ultimately normal life is of paramount importance. Girl on the Train’s Rachel daydreaming of what she fantasizes as the perfectly normal life of the as-yet-unmet Megan and Scott, in fact, helps launch the novel’s plot; the various characters trying to make each other feel not normal or accepted is their most potent form of social combat. This is something that does not translate very well to Black or Hispanic literature — or in Black or Hispanic real life. It is an understatement to say how much more forgiving people of color are of unusual personalities and lives than white people are.
Reality is no doubt somewhere in between the sunny optimism of Bridget Jones and the nihilism of Gone Girl. But these days, in 2016 especially, I know which genre better fits the public mood. And really, dark-chick-lit is teaching a good lesson: You shouldn’t let your guard down further the more you love someone; in fact, you should do the precise opposite.