When we hear the term “chick flick,” we generally think of the standard romantic comedy or a heavily emotional drama focusing on so-called female issues concerning relationships and/or family. Personally, I have always found these films to be particularly insulting for a number of reasons, including the fact that the movies of this “genre” aren’t well made. They are formulaic in plot, character development, theme, and have virtually no creative merit. But the main issue and interest that I have with these movies is that they represent an extreme social problem. Chick flicks continue to uphold degrading stereotypes, preach to women how they are to behave and what is expected of them, and contribute to distorted ideas of romance.
In actuality, chick flicks have been around for a long time, originating in the 1940s as ”the women’s film.” The main difference between then and now is the films of the 40s, such as Mildred Pierce (1945), Now Voyager (1942), and Rebecca (1940), try to discuss female struggle through class issues, repression, and lack of options. Many of the films today gloss over such things and instead focus on romanticism – and false romanticism at that.
Not to say that the treatment of women in the films of the 40s was perfect – far from it. Rather, the films of today are not as socially aware as the films of the past, and this lack of awareness is even reflected in the change of terminology used to identify such pictures. The term “women’s film,” which may be sexist in notion, still upholds a certain respect for women because it identifies the target audience as being a part of the human race. The term “chick flick,” on the other hand, is dehumanizing and possibly offensive, referring to women as small and brainless beings.
This aside, the themes and outcomes of the women’s film and the chick flick are remarkably similar. Typically the focus ends up on a heterosexual romantic relationship – that is, in finding solace and validation through a man. This ending is a staple of the genre. Whether the female characters are spunky and independent or down trodden and scraping by, their answer for finding happiness is always in men. For example, in My Big, Fat, Greek Wedding (2002), Toula (Nia Vardalos), a shy, unassuming woman, doesn’t really come into her own until she finds “love.” In Juno (2007) the protagonist of the same name (Ellen Page) walks to the beat of her own drum, but in the end she still needs validation from a boy. Sex and the City (2008) tells the story of Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker), a successful freelance writer who simply cannot function until her ultimate dream of marriage is realized. I could go on forever.
The fact is that these films, targeted toward women audience members, are a direct reflection of how our society views the female gender. Stereotypes reign supreme in these films, and the abundance of them poses a problem. Collectively looking at films of this genre, we can see that our ideals and standards of behavior haven’t changed all that much from what they were before the feminist movement: women are supposed to be primarily interested in romantic relationships, getting married, having children, and not having much of a life of their own.
Some of the movies are even hostile in their portrayal of successful career women, often stripping them of their humanity until they are tamed by love – which implies that the situation has actually gotten worse. The first example that comes to mind is the Sandra Bullock vehicle, The Proposal (2009). Margaret Tate (Bullock), publishing queen, is a nightmare of a person. She’s mean, uncaring, and self-absorbed; to put it bluntly, she’s a bitch. But love softens her black heart and saves her from deportation.
And there are countless other films that do the same thing, dating back to the 80s through today, which make a clear message that women who seek independence and careers are failures as human beings. They are not redeemed until they take their proper place in domesticity.
Women alone shouldn’t be the only ones to take issue with their portrayal in these films; the treatment of men (which often goes overlooked) is typically equally problematic. Men are frequently portrayed as dishonest cheaters and incapable of commitment. This portrayal has the potential to simply perpetuate a vicious cycle of distrust between the two genders that is all too tiring. Some women believe that most men are liars and they have to “trick” them into a relationship, and some men are led to believe that women are clingy, shallow, and dying to tie them down.
The chick flick robs people of their humanity and validates the worst stereotypes for both genders. In addition, it fuels the vapid and materialistic side of our society, with its unrealistic expectations of love and twisted view of what romance actually is. People tend to see romance as giving and/or receiving flowers, fancy dinners, vacation getaways, and a tiffany engagement ring. The chick flick certainly indulges in these beliefs and fantasies and even takes them further through climatic scenes in which one character must travel a great distance to reach the other simply to say “I love you” after a stupid misunderstanding or before some other life-changing event happens and the loved one is lost forever.
These films do everyone a disservice not only through their reliance on stereotypes but also through supporting the Valentine’s Day value that love is material. True romance isn’t found in expensive jewelry, the planning of engagement photo shoots, and fairytale weddings. It’s when someone holds your hair back for you when you’re throwing up; it’s being comfortable sitting in silence and simply enjoying the other’s company; it’s helping the other out with something that may be incredibly inconvenient for you at the time. These things are real.
On a positive note, there are some good films that, without relying on stereotypes, emerge from the saccrine sludge formula of the chick flick to create something enjoyable and meaningful. When Harry Met Sally… (1989) is a classic for a reason. A friendship develops into a romance after a good stretch of time, and the reasons why this happens make perfect sense because of the great character development. Both perspectives are taken into account and a very honest portrayal of relationships unfolds before us. In addition, Benny and Joon (1993), starring Johnny Depp, is an off-kilter romance between a shy eccentric genius (Depp) and an assertive paranoid schizophrenic (Mary Stuart Masterson). The basic premise of the film is set up early with the question, “What does it mean to need somebody?” While You Were Sleeping (1995), moreover, is rather predictable but quite funny and has its sentiment in the right place. Also, As Good As it Gets (1997), which in my opinion has one of the best scripts ever written, explores all types of love and the human need for connection over common romance. And, more recently, the terrific Waitress (2007) is more about finding your own personal bliss than romantic love, and the lesser known Ceremony (2010) takes a sincere look at unrequited love without the Hollywood ending.
Stereotypes abound in all film genres, but the chick flick is certainly a gross offender, particularly in the portrayal of women. The very name of the genre sums up the films that it’s used to describe and the attitude toward the women in them: brainless.
What I wonder, though, is why do we not have such a term for the action film? They are primarily geared toward a male audience, focus on macho ideals of what makes a “real” man, and are loaded with testosterone fueled explosions and gun fights. If romances are primarily known as chick flicks in our culture, then surely action films should be called “dick flicks.”