Written by: Ron Bricker
CC2K’s Beth Woodward defends the much maligned chick-flick.
Before I begin, I’d like to play “Name that Chick Flick.” Here’s how it works: below, I have provided summaries of three films with typical chick flick plots. Your task—should you choose to accept it—is to give the titles of the movies based on the plot descriptions provided below. But just to make this game more fun, I have changed one pertinent detail from each plot description.
Plot 1: A geeky high school girl is in love with one of the most popular guys in school. But just when it seems like something might happen between them, an unfortunate accident ends their first date before it even begins. Years later, she discovers where he lives and they reconnect. But they might not get their happily-ever-after when another woman falls in love with him, too.
Plot 2: When a shy, middle-aged retail store employee meets the man of her dreams—who owns a nearby store—she worries that her lack of sexual experience will be a turn-off, even though her zany coworkers have given her a makeover and tried to teach her about dating. Will Mr. Right stick around once he finds out the truth about her?
Plot 3: A thirty-something woman who absolutely loves the single life attends a wedding under false pretenses and develops an instant attraction to the best man. But when their innocent flirtation becomes more serious, she fears commitment. But when she realizes she is in love with him, she worries that the man will despise her once he finds out she has been lying about who she is.
Got it yet? I’ll give you a hint: I’ve changed the same detail in each of the descriptions.
All right, I think you’ve had enough time. The first movie is There’s Something about Mary. The second movie is The 40 Year Old Virgin. The third movie is Wedding Crashers. I merely switched the gender of the main characters.
Romantic comedies have been a staple of cinema since its beginnings. Yet they are often dismissed by critics as being mere “chick flicks” – trite and formulaic, with no inherent value besides keeping adolescent girls and middle-aged women occupied for a few hours. But romantic comedies are so enduring because they deal with a topic that most humans have or will deal with at some point in their lives: relationships. I’m going to take a look at chick flicks, their origins, their conventions and how they have been used, and how the elements of romantic comedies have appeared in movies that aren’t considered chick flicks.
Side note: For the purpose of this article, I have limited my definition of “chick flick” to female-oriented films that fall within the romantic comedy genre. While movies like Beaches and Steel Magnolias certainly count as chick flicks, I have chosen to exclude them from my analysis—primarily because it’s harder to make an argument that they don’t suck.
Hollywood did not invent the romantic comedy. In fact, William Shakespeare is probably the most famous writer of romantic comedies. His comedic plays—the ones where the lovers unite at the end rather than die—have often been adapted to film. Many of them have also been updated for modern audiences: the 2005 film She’s the Man is a modern-day adaptation of Twelfth Night, and both the 1999 film 10 Things I Hate About You and 2003’s Deliver Us From Eva (both of which, coincidentally, featured Gabrielle Union) were adaptations of The Taming of the Shrew.
The other historical guru of romantic comedies is Jane Austen. Austen’s contribution to literature of the 19th century was unique because she was one of the first authors to explore not only a situation, but the internal lives and motivations of her characters. Austen has been adapted and updated numerous times. Her longevity lies not only in her romances, but in the sly, subtle ways she makes fun of society and the people within it. Who can forget the silly, social climbing Mrs. Bennet or the buffoonish Mr. Collins? And while Austen’s other stories may not be as famous (or as often adapted) as Pride and Prejudice, they have not been overlooked, either: 1995’s hit teen comedy Clueless was loosely based on Austen’s Emma.
Cinematically, romantic comedies became popular in the 1930s, when “screwball comedies”—epitomized by the 1934 film It Happened One Night—came to the forefront. Since then, they have been a ubiquitous part of our film culture. But even from Shakespeare’s days, certain conventions have grown and evolved within the genre (including the “meet cute”—cute, improbable meetings between the two leads—sexual tension in lieu of overt sexuality, characters that don’t initially get along even though they’re falling in love with one another, and happy endings). These characteristics remain staples of the genre, even today. Take, for example, the following clips from It Happened One Night and When Harry Met Sally. Both of them showcase how the two main characters do not initially get along and the sexual tension that is growing between them.
Now you might be thinking, “Okay, Shakespeare did it, that’s great, but what does it have to do with me? I still don’t like chick flicks.” But the fact is the conventions of chick flicks play themselves out in movies that aren’t traditionally considered chick flicks—even films that aren’t aimed at women. Which brings me back to that little game I had you play at the beginning of the article. Take a chick flick, switch the genders of the main characters, add a few raunchy jokes, and what do you have? A guy movie. With Knocked Up and The 40 Year Old Virgin, Judd Apatow has become the king of the male-oriented romantic comedy, but the Farrelly brothers perfected the genre a decade ago with There’s Something About Mary. Here’s a clip from the end of the movie that shows the combination of chick flick conventions and more guy-friendly humor.
So why did this movie succeed? Certainly, the infamous hair gel scene didn’t hurt. But I believe that this move worked so well because it contained crucial elements necessary to make it shine: an entertaining script and characters the audience can genuinely care about. But these are items any movie needs to succeed, regardless of genre. Have you ever wondered why 2007’s slew of “issue” movies—most of which were thinly veiled attacks on the Iraq War (i.e. Lions for Lambs)—universally failed at the box office, despite some critical success? I believe that the biggest reason is because these films cared about their message more than their characters or their audience. Not all chick flicks succeed on this level, either. Take, for example, the newly released Fool’s Gold, with Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson. It’s pretty bad when even the trailer can’t make a movie’s characters or plot look appealing. Given how the movie has been universally panned, the film itself isn’t any better. Unfortunately, other than the trailer, I couldn’t find any clips of it on YouTube, but the following review shows, in a nutshell, why you should stay away from this movie.
Yes, chick flicks are predictable; most of the time, you can tell within the first five minutes of the movie which guy and which girl are going to end up together. But you can easily levy this criticism against other genres. (For example, when you see a teenage girl having sex in a slasher movie, it usually means she’ll end up dead before the end.) And yes, some chick flicks can be cheesy. But they are movies designed to entertain their audience, and when they are done with, they have characters their viewers won’t forget. Filmsite.org has posted a list of the greatest movie characters of all time (which was originally published in Premiere Magazine’s June 2004 issue). This list includes Sandy Olsson from Grease, Lloyd Dobbler from Say Anything, Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and—coming in at #6, the highest rating for a character in a romantic comedy—Annie Hall in Woody Allen’s 1977 classic Annie Hall.
And if you already know the ending coming into the movie, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Unlike movies, life is full of uncertainties, and we do not know whether the guy and girl will get together in the end. Movies have always been an escape from this harsh reality. Sometimes, it’s nice to watch something for a few hours and know, in the end, that everything will turn out all right.