Class finds meaning in chick lit

By Amy Fishman

How often do college students get to read Bridget Jones’s Diary as a homework assignment? Not too often, and not on too many college campuses.

According to Iryce Baron, the University is the only college in the United States, England, Canada, Australia and New Zealand that offers a chick lit course.

Baron teaches English 281, “Women in the Literary Imagination,” which is an overview of the chick lit genre, a new genre of women’s literature that is post-feminist and focuses on strong, quirky, comical females and the issues they face. One of the course’s required readings is Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary.

Baron said she started the chick lit course after the success of another English 281 course she teaches called “Icons of Marriage and Maternity in the British Novel,” a historical British, feminist literature class.

“The historical class was successful and intellectually useful for the students,” Baron said.

She said that it also helped her with her research on chick lit and helped her to create the chick lit course, which she began teaching in 2001.

Baron said she became interested in the chick lit genre when Bridget Jones’s Diary first came to the United States. She said that the book is a post-modern version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and that it shows the evolution of women’s issues, including social issues, marriage, economics and women’s rights.

Tessa Oberg, senior in LAS, took both sections of English 281 last year.

“Combining (the chick lit class) with the historical section made me understand how the discourse of money, marriage, sex and feminism really evolved in the 200 years between Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary,” Oberg said.

She added that although things have changed, women are still dealing with many of the same issues, such as inequality.

But Pride and Prejudice is not the only work of Austen’s that has a post-modern version. According to Baron, the movie Clueless is a post-modern version of Austen’s Emma, and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason is a post-modern version of Austen’s Persuasion.

Baron said she became interested in why authors chose Austen as a template to write current pieces of fiction. She also took interest in why women were writing novels that resembled earlier pieces about marriage and maternity, love, sex, romance and heterosexual relationships, when society is approaching a feminist era.

According to Baron, the genre has evolved and expanded. It now includes a middle-aged audience, as well as a teenage audience, and it focuses on even more issues, such as divorce and ethnicity.

She said that Allison Pearson’s I Don’t Know How She Does It (another chick lit course novel) addresses issues many women face today, including trying to balance being the perfect mom, relationships and work. There can be a feminist novel about a married woman with kids, Baron said. She, herself, is married with two kids.

“I think it really does address the issues women have from the house and the bedroom, as they transition to the office and the boardroom,” Baron said.

Baron also said she was fascinated by what these authors were doing. She said that she found the modern pieces to be “terribly funny” but at the same time they address real issues that women are concerned with.

Emily Netter, sophomore in LAS, is currently enrolled in the chick lit course. Netter said she finds it interesting to see a serious, academic perspective to the chick lit stories. She described the course as being fun and an interesting study of women in general.

“It’s a fun class and a lot of people open up in it and learn a lot about themselves,” Netter said.

Baron said she teaches the course because women in this culture can identify with chick lit characters, and though chick lit is comical, it deals with serious, feminist issues.

Baron said the course is divided into three parts: issues about body image and weight; sex, dating and working women; and marriage and maternity. She said that she selected three novels for each part that were representative of the topics covered in class.

Britt Barbour, sophomore in LAS and another of Baron’s students, said that while reading the novels of the course, she could relate to some of the characters. Barbour said she found that she was not alone in how she felt about women’s issues. She also said that the character she could relate to the most was Bridget Jones, as she was single and one of the younger characters from the course.

Brooke Potthast, sophomore in education, is currently taking Baron’s chick lit course. Potthast said that during class discussions, students open up and share their feelings about women’s images.

“It helped me to see that I wasn’t the only one that has, at one time, had a negative self-image,” Potthast said.

Baron also said that her students help her to see different aspects of the novels that she didn’t notice and that they make connections to other chick lit novels and films.

“It’s a learning experience for both of us,” Baron said.