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“Chick lit” and Urban Tribes

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As part of the Virtual Book Tour, author Ethan Watters will be posting today at both Blogcritics and about topics that tie into his book Urban Tribes: A Generation Redefines Friendship, Family, and Commitment as a guest of Blogcritic Shannon Okey. See this Blogcritics post for details.

Shannon, Reviews of the Bridget Jones’ Diary reading guide calls it a “genre-defining novel.” (Yes, Bridget has merited a full-length reading guide, formerly reserved for the likes of Austen and co). Helen Fieldings’ Diary and its sequel, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason directly influenced the current publishing trend which caused tables full of pink paperbacks to run amok in chain bookstores over the past few years.

There’s The Devil Wears Prada, in which a fresh-faced college grad faces life in the big city without the benefit of an extended tribe, overextending herself emotionally and physically as a result. Bridget Jones and company form an exemplary “tribe”, full of support and encouragement. They are a constant in each other’s lives. I Don’t Know How She Does It is an epilogue to the unmarried tribe life: Kate keeps her own tribe at work that pushes her to ever-higher career heights, but she’s at the mercy of the stay-at-home mothers’ tribe when forced to interact with them.

Are these books really a whole new genre, or do they merely reflect the influence of urban tribes on the lives of modern women? Is art imitating life or the other way around? Chapter 8 of Urban Tribes, “Love Versus the Tribe”, seems to suggest art is imitating life. Would a real-life Bridget Jones’ friends allow her to continue dating an “emotional fuckwit”, or would they push her to find someone more suitable? In short, what’s the lag time between social concepts and the novel / movie / made-for-TV miniseries version? And do the novels influence our personal choices in lieu of, or in concert with, our real-life friends?

Ethan Watters: I think these types of books have been so popular not necessarily because they’ve gotten this time period right but because there has been such a narrative vacuum. The marriage delay has cause a lot of anxiety, especially for women, because we haven’t had the cultural stories to explain this time. That the first narratives to emerge would have neurotic characters like Bridget Jones makes sense. It’s a case of art imitating anxiety.

My impression of real women living through the marriage delay are, in general:

  • Less confused by and obsessed with their sex lives.

  • More in control of their careers.
  • Less flustered by the bumps and turns of city life.

As I wrote in the book:

Women weren’t just treading water during their single years. Sixty percent of all single women owned their own homes (snapping them up much faster than single men did). Hundreds of travel companies had become savvy to this population’s thirst for adventure, offering increasingly challenging women-only treks across deserts and over mountains. Their advance into
careers once dominated by men was remarkably swift — every bit as important as the mold-breaking their mothers managed. The statistics, and pretty much all of the anecdotal evidence I found, pointed to the conclusion that these women were becoming remarkably self-sufficient and confident adults.

When my mother came and visited my tribe of friends in San Francisco, the women would consistently amaze her. After each dinner party or Thanksgiving celebration, she couldn’t stop talking about these successful and confident women. As a feminist herself, she was giddy with pride for their careers in law, medicine, and business, but there was something more. She was impressed not just by their resume but with how remarkably competent they seemed in every aspect of their lives. This is not to say that she didn’t like my male friends — she did — but there was a clear difference. The men in my tribe might have been successful in one or another endeavor, but in general we did not tackle life nearly as aggressively as the women did.

“The women I’ve talked to are extremely competent at a great many things,” said Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, a researcher who has devoted the last few years to studying young unmarried women.

“Women can manage friendships, work lives, exciting travel. Men have a hard time with that kind of range.”

So why were marriage and family such a constant worry for many women in terms of achieving their life goals? I came to believe that women’s anxieties about marriage came not from the disappearance of courtship but because we were a generation living through a massive transition in the very nature and meaning of being a young adult. What will seem weird to future generations is that we lived during the brief moment in history when we perceived the personal and professional accomplishments of women as being in conflict with their hopes of finding happy marriages. Once we’re out of this nervous transition period, it will seem bizarre that we failed to make a causal connection between a woman’s general success in her single years and her potential for a happy marriage.

The narratives that tell the truth about the beauty and potential of these years have yet to be told.

About Shannon Okey

  • jadester

    ah, but in general men are more laidback than women, which is, i believe, the main reason we “have a hard time with that kind of range”
    the average bloke is happy to sit back watching tv with a frosty beer (or cider) when the average woman would like to be socialising with friends or doing work or something more constructive anyway.