No woman I Know has ever sung into a hairbrush or an egg whisk, but there is a universe where this sort of thing happens all the time. It’s the same foreign land where women express excitement by jumping up and down in unison, squealing, and flapping their wrists like seals. It’s a place where a heroine in search of spiritual renewal finds it by trying on disastrous clothes (either from her own closet or in a boutique dressing room) in funny double time before hitting on the right ta-DAH! outfit. It’s a garden of make-believe where grown women who have been best friends since girlhood turn into competitive psychopaths the minute they begin planning their weddings (that’s you, ladies of Bride Wars); where another misreads male behavior with a cluelessness bordering on mental deficiency (I’m talking to you, Ginnifer Goodwin in He’s Just Not That Into You); and where still another jeopardizes an important job interview by dawdling over the compulsive purchase of an ugly green scarf (hats off to Isla Fisher in Confessions of a Shopaholic).
My own confession? I generally love these sisters from another planet. But lately they’re driving me crazy, as they beam garbled messages down to women on Earth. The genre we’re talking about here, of course, goes by the name of chick flicks, a label that often feels demeaning, not just to hens like me but to men who might also be interested in movies about ”women’s issues” such as romance, family, friendship, and the joys of eating ice cream directly from cardboard containers. Still, the chick-flick designation can be a useful shorthand. It’s a quick alert that a very particular candy-colored, female-oriented fantasy lies ahead. How else can scientists explain the existence of 27 Dresses and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days? How else can agents explain the careers of Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey?
Chick flicks turn the emotional make-believe on high, the way we women are famous for liking it. And what I love about the genre — which used to be called ”women’s pictures” back in the 1940s when Bette Davis blossomed from spinsterhood to love in Now, Voyager, and in the 1950s when Jane Wyman outraged society by loving a younger man in All That Heaven Allows — is that for all the frivolity of the term, movies as smart as Baby Mama and as dorky as Two Weeks Notice reliably reflect the changing reality of how we live in the world. At the very least, they reflect Hollywood’s interpretation of that reality, once it’s been sweetened, shined, and focus-tested. I’m thrilled, with every viewing, when best friends become lovers in When Harry Met Sally…, because for 20 years now, Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal have kept hope alive for generations of women with well-loved male friends. I adore professional go-getters like Melanie Griffith in Working Girl and Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde. I blubber on cue when I rewatch Terms of Endearment. I’m impressed by spunky ladies — I am soooo not spunky — especially when their chirpiness is subverted by the great faux-bimbo Anna Faris as an out-of-work Playboy cutie in The House Bunny, plumped out by Renée Zellweger in Bridget Jones’s Diary, or melded with down-home, gal-next-door lovability in anything starring Sandra Bullock. And I laugh a head-shaking duh each time studio executives rediscover that women are living past the age of 30 — and buying a considerable number of movie tickets. Our reward? A select, satisfying subgenre of no-spring-chick flicks, including The First Wives Club, The Bridges of Madison County, Something’s Gotta Give, and Enchanted April.
Recently, though, despite the box office success of He’s Just Not That Into You, the genre has laid an egg, as the more high-profile women’s pictures settle for inconsequentiality and materialism in emotional fantasies played out by pliable dolls. Is the heroine a young, single professional and accidentally pregnant? No problem, she’ll make room for the baby and the childlike daddy (Knocked Up). Does her fiancé want to give her a nice wedding present? Ooh, goody, she’ll take a gigantic closet for her shoes (Sex and the City). There’s a fiddle-dee-dee girlishness to today’s chick-flick heroines that’s superficially cute — and deeply full of crap. Tell the truth: Does any woman not from the planet of He’s Just Not That Into You truly believe that staring at a cell phone will magically, magnetically cause a man to call? At a time of great seriousness in the real world, and when we’ve got wise, culture-shaping women like Tina Fey and Oprah Winfrey wielding power in entertainment, what are we — and Hollywood — doing frittering our time watching Kate Hudson and Anne Hathaway play bridezillas who wrestle each other to the ground over bridal tulle? When actors like Catherine Keener, Viola Davis, Kate Winslet, Cate Blanchett, and Michelle Williams are available to play female characters of warmth, intelligence, complexity, and loveliness (identifiable and irresistible to women and men alike), what are we doing wasting time on heroines who waste so much of their own time?
Carrie Bradshaw never typed this into her laptop but she should have: When did ”women’s issues” become so inconsequential, and handbag lust so big a plot point?
So I’m hating on chick flicks these days because their fun is indistinguishable from foolishness. In real life, we shop at Target and order online from Lands’ End. In Shopaholic, based on the best-selling books by Sophie Kinsella, Isla Fisher (a fabulous acrobat of physical comedy) shops for luxury brands in expensive boutiques with a devotion that would be creepy even if her antics, those of a mentally ill addict, weren’t so jarringly out of tune with today’s economic agonies. In real life, we deal with job layoffs, money worries, dry skin, food allergies, political change, spiritual longing, and shoddy assemble-it-yourself furniture; we also communicate with the opposite sex with a relatively sound ability to read cues. In He’s Just Not That Into You, miscommunication spreads like a rash between a husband and wife, a longtime live-in couple, and, of course, a desperate singleton looking for love. The rash is never of the diaper variety, however. Neither inconvenient children nor inconvenient aging parents make appearances, ruining the perfect self-involvement of the protagonists.
Movie production schedules can’t possibly outrun current events when it comes to the kind of real social and economic upheaval that can upset a movie’s timeliness. Not too long ago, shopaholism was a character quirk in vogue. But Hollywood should take stock, grow a pair (with a choice of pairs, depending on the gender), and realize that now’s the time for some serious female fun. A few stories involving women with actual jobs might be a good start, a few delightful but wise plots involving recognizably real mothers, daughters, wives — and lovers interested in more than text-messaging. Escapism will always have a place in the movies, so long as girls like stories about love affairs that work out and boys like stories about cars that crack up. But in this new age of tempered expectations and not-so-plenty, when First Lady Michelle Obama’s down-to-earth fashions are accessible to any dreamer who can click on the J. Crew website, it would be nice if more chicks in flicks put down the spatula — or Rock Band mic — they’re singing into and picked up the implements of self-awareness, compassion, and good sense. Those are always in style.
1. For a comprehensive list of chick-flick cliché consult the excellent promo video for He’s Just Not That Into You, starring Kevin Connolly, Justin Long, and Bradley Cooper in the chick roles. My fave: the weeping-girl-leans-back-on-wall-and-slides-to-fetal-crouch maneuver, demonstrated by Long. (hesjustnotthatintoyoumovie.com)
2. The Shopaholic scarf is not only a harsh shade of green, but expensive, too; look for it soon on Craigslist.
3. Ideally in flannel pajamas, at midnight, standing in the kitchen.
4. Exception: Mamma Mia! reflects no reality at all except the truth that sometimes we women like to go out with gal pals to watch a movie about gal pals with strong bonds of friendship, then celebrate our own bonds afterward by getting squiffy on margaritas and toasting Meryl Streep’s durability.
5. The Plaza? Really? Isn’t that so Donald Trump ’90s?
6. With more women in the workplace than ever before, where’s the next employment-based chick flick? How come Working Girl and Baby Boom, both over 20 years old, feel fresher than René e Zellweger’s romp as a suit lost in the blue-collar heartland in New in Town?