Much has been written recently about the state of romantic comedy films, or more specifically, the downfall of the “chick flick”. There are many out there who take issue with that term because it sounds degrading to material marketed to women, but I think that anger is misdirected. It should be targeted straight at the films themselves and how the female gender as a whole is being portrayed.
Back in the ‘30s, a decade when some of the best screwball comedies were produced, the women were never the butt of the joke, they were smart, savvy and yearned for life beyond the latest pair of shoes or the next in a long line of suitors. Even as little as 12 years ago, with films like Bridget Jones’s Diary , women were still being portrayed as independent thinkers who were wacky and boy obsessed yes, but still a bit closer to reality.
Some of the more recent chick flicks however, have represented women in the most despicable manner possible: in Bride Wars two women prize a high-priced wedding over their life-long friendship, in He’s Just Not That Into You several seemingly intelligent women spend their spare time moping around over men who are clearly not worth it, and in Confessions of a Shopaholic a young woman allows her love of designer labels to take over her life. The most alarming thing about these movies is that all three were co-written by women.
Why are women writing other women this way? It’s not a coincidence that all three of the movies I’ve named above were produced by major studios which, you guessed it, are largely run by men. What we’re being fed is the white male version of how women act. In order for female screenwriters to get their screenplays produced by a studio and therefore seen by a wider audience, they’re forced to compromise how they see themselves.
But wait, you say. These movies are just meant to be fluff. Brain candy is okay sometimes, right? Well sure, I love silly fun movies as much as the next gal, but think about the bigger picture. Fewer than 10% of Hollywood films are written by women and less than 6% are directed by women. Women go to the movies as part of a girls’ night out and unfortunately there are very few options for them if they want to see a story about other women, so movies like The Ugly Truth or The Proposal end up making money and studios continue to make more movies just like them.
Fortunately, there are some great alternatives to the mind-liquefying romantic comedies out there now. Avoid the theatre and have a girls’ (or guys’ – real men like rom coms) night in instead:
The late Adrienne Shelley wrote and directed what should be upheld as an example of the perfect chick flick. A feel-good story about a waitress who is unhappy in her marriage but finds her strength through an unwanted pregnancy, an oddly fulfilling affair with a handsome doctor and a dream of winning a national pie bake-off.
When Jessica Stein is accused by an ex-boyfriend of not being open enough to the possibility of love, she decides to take a leap of faith and answer a classified ad in the “women-seeking-women” section. Written by its stars Jennifer Westfeldt and Heather Juergensen, this movie is hilarious, authentic and heartfelt.
A criminally underseen film written and directed by Richard LaGravenese and starring Holly Hunter as a woman coming out of a divorce and learning to live on her own for the first time in her life. Queen Latifah also appears in a breakout performance as a local lounge singer with an acid tongue. This is an elegantly directed study on loneliness, aging gracefully and finding yourself. It also has some of the best subtle comedy writing in years .
First-time director Ali Selim creates an extraordinarily tender old-fashioned romance (with a similar structure as the detestable The Notebook ) directed with a light-comic touch that quietly doubles as a comment on the immigrant experience in America. It’s slow moving and deliberately so since most of the magic is derived from the gentle way that the characters dance around one another.
I have no idea why this film, that centres around female teamwork and “being your own hero,” didn’t do better when it came out a few years ago. The romantic angle is very much a b-story but it accurately captures the excitement and ultimate disappointment of first love. The thing that makes this a real gem is how the main character navigates her relationships with her oldest friend, her roller derby team and her mom – these are all strong, fully-realized characters who have insight into the way female relationships actually operate. That type of versimilitude is, sadly, quite rare in mainstream cinema.
Films like these prove that there’s hope for the rom com yet. The market can only take so many movies featuring prat-falling, shoe-loving ninnies before it implodes on itself and makes way for the next generation of filmmakers with stories about real women to swoop in and take over. Until then, I may still go and see the next Sandra Bullock/Katherine Heigl/Kate Hudson extravaganza but I’ll be sure to buy a ticket for something else and sneak in – just doing my part for womankind everywhere.
MORE FROM TORONTO FILM SCENE
- The woeful underrepresentation of women in directing
- TFS Questions: Liane Balaban, Jenna Wright and Vanessa Matsui, Founders of Crankyfest
- The peculiar world of wedding comedies