By: Caitlin Panarella
Let’s talk about chick flicks.
That rather unfortunate term, “chick flick,” usually associated with romantic comedy films, suggests that these films are of particular fascination to women. The target audience is usually women, due to some notion that men would have no interest in relationships or sappy happily-ever-afters. If romantic comedies are indeed geared toward women, they offer an important study in the messages aimed at their target viewer.
This past summer, I realized that when it came to cult classic films, my vocabulary remained largely empty. I had seen some favorites, but for many I had only secondhand knowledge of their iconic moments. I made a list of ones I wanted to watch. Many of the fan favorites included romantic comedies, which had their heyday in the 1990s and early 2000s.
While I never expected these romantic comedies to be the stock image of equality and feminism, I felt disturbed by some of the trends I saw repeated in many of them. To quote Ian Fleming’s novel Goldfinger, “once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, three times is an enemy action.”
One of the first movies I saw was You’ve Got Mail (1998), a beloved Pride-and-Prejudice-esque movie about competing professionals in the bookstore industry. Kathleen Kelly, the owner of a small bookshop, tries to keep her business afloat when Joe Fox, the head of a corporate chain bookstore, moves in across the street. Meanwhile, the two fall in love through their online personages.
I was very excited to watch this movie, making its ultimate disappointment all the more regretful. Bookstores? Pride and Prejudice undertones? A matrilineal business? Done, done and done. The film was funny and well-acted, and the leads had great chemistry.
Unfortunately, however, Kathleen loses her business toward the end of the film. This in and of itself is not what turned me off. It reflects a sad reality: corporate chains often kill off small, independent bookshops. What upset me most was the end of the film, when Kathleen discovers who he is and the credits roll as soon as they kiss. I felt left in the lurch- what about her business? What is her next move career-wise?
This is not the love of equals; that ended when Joe found out who his online interest was and continued to pull the strings. He was her superior both in business and in knowledge of the relationship.
This inclination to disregard a woman’s career, or any part of her life outside her relationship with a man, reappears in other “chick flicks” such as “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” (2003) and “The American President” (1995). In the former, while Andie tries to leave New York to pursue a job, her love interest Ben claims she is only leaving because of him. Ben has just received a promotion. The latter ends with President Shepherd being applauded by Congress before his speech after having left his love interest Sydney Wade with a bouquet of flowers. She, meanwhile, has just lost her job.
In both films, the man attains professional success while it is left unclear whether the woman does or not. As it is left ambiguous, this information is deemed irrelevant to the ending.
All of these films implicitly communicate a dangerous message to the female viewer: Who needs economic stability when you have a man to support you? Not only is the woman’s career secondary to the man’s, it is secondary to her relationship as well. The message that career is secondary to love is a gendered one, because all three films affirm a man’s success.
Fortunately, I have seen some films in the past year that may be signaling a shift in a better direction. One of them is La La Land. Whatever else might be said about the film, it shows a supportive partnership, albeit with some bumps in the road. Though Mia and Seb do not end up together, both helped each other achieve their dreams. Mia took her career seriously, and did not compromise it for her relationship with Seb. No one’s success is left ambiguous; in fact the entire film leads to an ending of mutual respect and accomplishment.
Though this shift is a positive one, older films are by no means out of the picture; despite their antiquated messages, they are still “classics.” When watching any movie, one must approach it with a critical eye with regard to gendered messages. Ask who this movie is reassuring, and what it says women should value. Media messages can help women or harm women, and we must call out bias when we see it.