(WOMENSENEWS)–I admit I’m a romantic guy. I don’t have to be bribed into spending a night on the couch, under a blanket, watching a love-struck comedy. I’m perfectly happy enjoying these quiet nights of pensive passion with a side of popcorn. Having done so on many occasions, however, I’ve begun to notice a pattern.
It’s not the bad ex-partner, quirky best friend, chance meeting, will they get together, they do, they fight, they reconcile, they live happily ever after pattern.
Rather, I’ve begun to notice the women in these films, these vicarious vehicles of longing love that movie producers market toward the female population.
Unfortunately, I’ve noticed that they often fall in line behind the leading man.
In fact, I’ve come to find that most “chick flicks” send the underlying message that morally substandard men (alcoholics, men who solicit prostitutes, misogynists, etc.) are worthy of pursuit, are “diamonds in the rough,” or are simply waiting to be changed.
Even in cases where the male lead is not specifically objectionable, the independent women in these films are often subsumed by the leading man’s successful career as their life takes a back seat and they tune up a professional second fiddle.
Roots in Silent Era
Such portrayal of women in general and independent women in particular can be traced back to the silent film era of the 1920s and 1930s.
The wholesome traditional heroine, expectedly chaste and devoted, was juxtaposed with sexually licentious “vamps.” Some actresses were known for their ability to fulfill these stereotypes and were billed accordingly, such as “America’s Sweetheart” Mary Pickford, and “Serpent of the Nile” Theda Bara, both stars of the silent screen.
In 1940s and 1950s film noir, the vamps evolved into the femmes fatale with an even darker image, the classic example being Barbara Stanwyck’s conniving and murderous character in “Double Indemnity” (1944), or Lana Turner’s portrayal of Cora in “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (1946).
The femme fatale established a relationship between danger and female liberty, as women rebuffed social mores and expectations by being unmarried, sexually active, self-sufficient and (gasp) even wearing pants, a particularly noticeable wardrobe choice for Joan Crawford’s character in “Johnny Guitar” (1954).
Also, the Motion Picture Association of America, which established the Hays Code in 1930 to guarantee that the movies uphold moral values of the day, insisted that the endings of these films establish a sense of retribution, causing these women to be jailed or killed as part of the story line’s resolution. That message isn’t as quaint as it may seem; the now classic ending to “Thelma and Louise” (1991) is just one example of how this sensibility lingers in Hollywood.
Re-Evaluating Gender Roles
Modern viewers may shrug off some of these films as relics of a bygone time. Gender roles, especially after World War II, were being re-evaluated during the years those movies were made and moral backlash is to be expected.
Accordingly, the prim Katharine Hepburn of “The African Queen” (1951) is an unsurprising model of femininity. What’s disturbing in this film, however, is the suggestion that the ill-mannered, gin-swilling Humphrey Bogart is a viable love interest, and that simply pouring his booze into the river makes him into a desirable husband.
While there may be some suspension of disbelief involved, part of cinematic appeal lies in seeing yourself in the characters. As Kim Adelman writes in the introduction to “The Ultimate Guide to Chick Flicks,” her 2005 book, “What makes us really melt is when girls with great hair triumph over adversity and hunky bad boys get domesticated.”
While society has updated gender roles in many ways, the themes of the chick flick have remained static.
The “domesticated bad boy” remains a staple, suggesting that men are there to be changed and women are there to do the changing, such as the dating guru title character in “Hitch” (2005) who manages to end up with the independent Eva Mendes.
Sandra Bullock has seen her share of lackluster men, from misogynistic FBI agents (“Miss Congeniality,” 2000) to real estate playboys (“Two Weeks Notice,” 2002).
Hotel maid Jennifer Lopez is unable to get the leading man politician to even look at her as long as she’s simply “the help” in “Maid in Manhattan” (2002). Julia Roberts’ co-star sees women as commodities in “Pretty Woman” (1990). Yet each of these women falls blissfully in love with these men after dutifully installing an improved moral compass.
Odious Men Get the Girl
At times, odious men are even rewarded for their dreadful behavior. When Goldie Hawn loses her memory in “Overboard” (1987) she is tricked by a vengeful man into being his wife, yet remains in love with him even after her amnesia is cured.
In “Grease” (1978) Olivia Newton-John wins the heart of the leader of the T-Birds gang by transforming herself from a conservative nonsmoking, non-imbibing “good girl” to the leather-clad, suggestive “bad girl” she thinks he’s looking for. Meg Ryan has fallen prey to this contrivance as well.
In “You’ve Got Mail” (1998) Ryan’s character owns a small independent bookstore she inherited from her beloved mother. Despite this, she falls in love with the man whose bargain bookstore chain drives her out of business. Women losing their autonomy is a secondary theme to many chick flicks. This happens to Meg Ryan again in “Kate and Leopold” (2001), when a prince charming (actually a duke) travels back in time, then returns to 1876 with successful advertising exec Ryan hot on his heels.
Sometimes chick flicks do give women more opportunity to love an actual good guy. In this summer’s “The Lake House” Sandra Bullock meets her pen pal love with the help of a magic mailbox.
Other than being a doctor with an unrealistic amount of free time, there is no suggestion that she’s in the back seat. However, traditional themes return in nontraditional formats.
In Pixar’s new film “Cars” (2006), animation conveys a story of a hotshot, self-absorbed, immature male who meets Bonnie Hunt’s flirtatious counterpart. As expected, she is largely responsible for his emotional growth, and is instrumental in his realization that the world is more than racing and fast cars.
Despite their predictable patterns and cookie-cutter characters, I’m still drawn to chick flicks. Maybe I watch the way monster movie fans that wait for the huge mutant squid to destroy the city do, only to feel disappointed when the army blows him to bits. In the same way, maybe I’m waiting for the heroine to dump the bad-boy letch and wind up with someone like me: just a good, honest, down-to-earth guy. Maybe he’s a motorcycle-riding, feminist-philosopher writer who likes to watch movies on the couch.
Hint, hint, Hollywood.
Nevyn O’Kane is a history and philosophy major at Northeastern Illinois University specializing in logic and the philosophy of mind. He writes on state and church separation, animal rights, gay rights, social justice and a woman’s right to choose. He lives in Chicago with his wife Victoria.
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