The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Actually Not: Confessions of a Chick Flick Cynic

Written by: Blythe Gillespie, Special to CC2K


Watching this for a friend should indenture them to loyalty for forever after.

I overheard my best friend introduce herself to another girl at a party.  They realized they had much in common and my friend said, “If Love Actually is your favorite movie you’re my new best friend!”  “Oh my God, it’s only the best movie ever!”  Hey!  I thought.  I watched Ever After for you.  You owe me!  But I said nothing.  As a girl who thinks most girl movies are stupid, I’m the enigma, not them.   
Chick flicks come in many forms.  There are female bonding movies like Steel Magnolias and Beaches.  There are romances like The English Patient and The Notebook.  There are romantic comedies ranging from The Truth About Cats and Dogs to Must Like Dogs.  But being in these categories doesn’t automatically designate a film a chick flick.  A yardstick could be whether the cast appeared on Oprah, such as with Stepmom and Something’s Gotta Give.  How about anything by Nora Ephron?  Although I wouldn’t label When Harry Met Sally a chick flick.  What about the presence of Meg Ryan though?  She’s the reigning chick flick queen, but she was also in Courage Under Fire.  

Regardless, we know a chick flick when we see one.  The women have more dialogue than the men and cry a lot.  The focus is on female relationships and/or women trying to obtain men.  There’s a pseudo-statement about female empowerment.  And they’re often not cinematic masterpieces.  But because I’m not able to sit through The English Patient in its entirety (we all saw the Seinfeld episode) that doesn’t mean it’s not worthy.  Sometimes it’s a matter of taste.  For the sake of argument, I’m going to exclude those kinds of movies from this discussion and focus on the chick flicks I define as “movies that are an embarrassment to women.”   

Love Actually is not a quintessential chick flick, but it contains many of the essential devices.  I understand suspension of disbelief however Love Actually takes it to a whole other level.  The Prime Minister of England ringing random doorbells seeking the maid he’s fallen madly in love with?  And it’s Hugh Grant, who’s not hideous.  His love interest’s fat thighs and butt are mentioned throughout to make Hugh’s character an even better catch for not being shallow.  Then there’s Colin Firth’s well-off writer character learning Portuguese to propose to the rather plain maid he’s fallen for without sharing so much as a conversation.  The reason men don’t want to watch this is the same reason women love it: women get to be average and ditzy; men have to be Hugh and Colin. 

We do love happily-ever-after and expectations need to be satisfied.  The ending of Pretty In Pink was changed because the audience couldn’t stomach Duckie as Andie’s prince charming.   In embarrassing chick flicks the gratification tends toward over the top though—fist fights; choosing between two hyper-attractive guys; public displays of worship.  Take Bridget Jones, in which the title character snares a guy who thinks she’s perfect just as she is.  The film makes a big deal of emphasizing that she’s a plump, problem drinking chain smoker whose life is generally chaos of her own making.  The guy is a wealthy lawyer who broke his engagement to another lawyer to be with Bridget.  I’m not saying opposites can’t attract, but Bridget’s definitely getting the better deal.

Hey, if a charming guy way out of my league falls in love with me because I’m perfect just as I am I’ll find a way to live with the hypocrisy.  But the reason women flock to see this happen in movies is because it almost never does in real life.  There’s nothing wrong with a little fantasy, but is it a flattering depiction of women that our primary goal is to get a certain type of guy?  The embarrassment isn’t that these movies exist it’s that women like them so much.  Because they do like them so much, I wonder if women even realize how ridiculous and self-involved these plots are.  There is a lot of subterfuge. 

In The Wedding Date Debra Messing’s character is validated by a male prostitute falling in love with her after a one night stand she can’t remember.  This is not the feminist version of Pretty Woman.  If the guy didn’t look like Dermot Mulroney wouldn’t this be sleazier than it already is?  In Jerry Maguire, Renee Zellweger’s character negates her validation—Jerry’s weepy declaration of love—with one line:  “You had me at hello.”  No need to apologize for being a jerk, just show up.  What woman wouldn’t agree when Jerry looks like Tom Cruise?  The fact is these movies that are so appealing to women aren’t necessarily flattering to them.  It’s easy to get so taken in by the fantasy we don’t realize it though.

I’ll take a sappy sports movie like Rudy or Remember the Titans over a sappy love story any day.  Those movies are about people who work hard, think of others besides themselves and achieve genuine success.  Or what about a buddy movie like Swingers?  Mike gets the girl in the end, but it’s done with originality and plausibility.  In About A Boy Hugh Grant’s character has to change to find love, and he assists others along the way.  Then there’s what I consider the anti-chick flick sentiment expressed by John Cusack’s character in High Fidelity: he’s never going to think his mate is perfect so he should just settle for the best he can get.  What do you make of that, Bridget?     

So girls, the next time you watch Love Actually think about what the male fantasy vignette is—going to America and finding trashy model-types who immediately get naked.  This is no less self-indulgent than Diane Keaton’s character’s romance with Keanu Reeves’ character in Something’s Gotta Give.  Even with a movie like Hitch, where the tables are turned, there’s immense female satisfaction in imagining being sought after by Will Smith.  It’s an undercover chick flick.  Men have beer girls in bikinis, women have chick flicks.  Maybe there is empowerment there, but women generally dis those girls in bikinis the same way guys dis chick flicks. 

Hollywood has women’s number and they dial it again and again: girl gets gorgeous, successful guy.  Even in male point of view movies where this happens, it doesn’t happen in the same way because men wouldn’t watch it if it did.  Look at Wedding Crashers.  Even though Vince Vaughn’s character falls for that girl in the end, she’s portrayed as a psycho throughout.  In the chick flicks I’m talking about, the protagonist women are also portrayed badly, usually as self-obsessed neurotics. But because they end up successfully coupled women don’t see it.  I’m not so cynical that I’m against a happy ending, but there’s a better way to achieve one than Serendipity.