Most women, including feminists, have a love/hate relationship with the chick flick. A mere mention of the term can send you into a lather bemoaning the disparagement that the entire genre has wrought on womankind. The current offerings are especially troublesome. But this was not always the case.
Back in the 1930s and 40s, during Hollywood's golden era, the chick flicks were called women's films, which were defined by film historian Jeanine Basinger as "a movie that places at the center of its universe a female who is trying to deal with emotional, social and psychological problems that are specifically connected to the fact she is a woman." While women were the central characters in films like Mildred Pierce, Now Voyager and The Philadelphia Story, to name a few, the audiences were both men and women.
Fast-forward to the late 70s and early 80s when feminism was saturating the cultural landscape of the country and, for a brief moment, also penetrating Hollywood as women moved into powerful positions behind the scenes. The films of that period show some of the strongest, most feminist women ever seen onscreen and displayed the depth and range of the rising female consciousness. These films--including Julia, Norma Rae, An Unmarried Woman, Silkwood, 9 to 5, My Brilliant Career, Yentl, Places in the Heart, Out of Africa, The Color Purple, Children of a Lesser God, Desert Hearts-- relayed women's stories as important and valid to the culture and often appealed to men as well. But just like the women's film flamed out, by the late 1980s, feminist films began to disappear as the blockbuster mentality grew in combination with the "backlash" documented by Susan Faludi. Since that time women have slowly and steadily been losing clout onscreen in a disturbing way that belies their behind-the-scenes power positions.
In recent decades, the women's film landscape has slowly and steadily been usurped by the chick flick, and its dominance makes no one happy. Unlike the films in previous periods, the genre seems to have some sort of embedded kryptonite that repels men. These films regularly have female ticket buyers at 60 and sometimes even 70 percent of the audience on opening weekend. Still, the economics of Hollywood don't favor these films, which tend always to be referred to as counter programming. They are smaller (few, if any explosions), which translates into smaller budgets for marketing and advertising, which in turn guarantees lower box office. Thus few movies about women break out from the pack, although 2008 had some important exceptions including Sex & the City and Twilight, which both opened with blockbuster numbers. Even the record-setting Mamma Mia! which has grossed a half a BILLION dollars worldwide, didn't open big here in the United States. Its staying power propelled it into the top 15 grossing films of the year.
Things are not equal in Hollywood and the current incarnation of the chick flick reflects that gender disparity by favoring films with sexist and regressive images of women. Yes, women have become executives at all levels of the industry--heads of production and even running studios--yet for all those individual successes, women are still woefully underrepresented in all facets of the film business. According to new data released this month, women make up 16 percent of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films. Directors are a scant 9 percent and writers 12 percent (Center for the Study of Women in TV and Film.)
The industry reasoning that dismisses women (who buy 50 percent of the tickets) as counter programming easily dismisses any successes of films about women as flukes. As Bonnie Bruckheimer, a long time producer of chick flicks including Beaches states: "when a chick flick does well, they will find some excuse as to why it did well so it's not the norm." You would think that it would make sense for industry leaders to try and figure out a way to reproduce successes instead of continuing to ignore women.
For some time there has been a glimmer of good news. There is a brand of "chick flicks" that are targeted at younger women (perhaps because it's safer to empower young women): a combination of feminism and girl power that engages the post Title IX generation. Films like Legally Blonde, Blue Crush, Bend it Like Beckham and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants show young, strong female characters. But once you reach adulthood, your film counterparts are pitted against each other and characters seem to be solely focused on getting and keeping men.
No matter how far we may have advanced in the public sphere, the feminist battle with the movie industry is not gaining ground. Quite frankly, looking the early part of 2009, things are getting worse. The studios released several films that were easily lumped into a pattern, and not such a good one. Films like Bride Wars, Confessions of a Shopaholic and He's Just Not That Into You--produced and written by both men and women--were laced with misogyny so blatant that critics across the country took note. Anne Thompson, who has been writing about women and Hollywood for a variety of publications and currently blogs at Thompson on Hollywood, comments, "I get very unhappy with the kind of misogyny that is so much about laughing at the foibles of women. A lot of men seem to think that it's very amusing for women to turn on each other and behave badly." The next couple of months don't look to be any better, if trailers for the upcoming Sandra Bullock and Jennifer Aniston films are any indication.
And yet with all the complaints about the chick flick, the genre has become the only place where women have significant roles in the studio system. But wait, that may be changing now too. Thanks to Judd Apatow and his merry band of comedians, now we have "bromances," chick flicks without chicks. Films like Wedding Crashers, Knocked Up and the current I Love You Man are embraced by the studios since they appeal to guys.
So what's a film-loving feminist to do? Best advice would be don't let the label deter. There are many films worth seeing that get pegged as chick flicks. When a good film about women opens in your neighborhood you must GO on opening weekend no matter what its genre. It's that simple. The more we support these films, the more of them will be made. It might take a little work to find them, but every ticket makes a huge difference. On the other hand, don't be complicit in perpetuating the trend of misogynistic films just because they are out there. Read up on the films and know what you are spending your time and money on. Hollywood listens to the cash register both when its full and when its not.
Originally posted at the Women's Media Center