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HerStory – what’s happened to the quality chic-flick?

Written By: - Date published: 5:07 pm, March 8th, 2009 - 5 comments
Categories: articles, sexism - Tags:

A couple of weeks ago I listened to a very interesting interview with Dr Diane Purkiss (audio here) on Nine to Noon. I missed the opportunity to post on her findings of the  “dumbing down” effect, but then I spotted the same discussion in this Sydney Morning Herald article.

Rom-com heroines used to be witty and bold; now they’re ditzy fools. What went wrong?…Romantic comedies have, of course, long been formulaic and often palpably dumb but recently they actually seem to have become contemptuous of women….

It’s not only women who have noticed the shift in the romantic comedy genre. Peter Travers, a film critic for Rolling Stone magazine, describes He’s Just Not That Into You as “a women-bashing tract disguised as a chick flick”. Diane Purkiss, an Oxford University fellow and feminist historian, feels that we have reached a nadir in the way women are portrayed on screen and says that there’s been “a depressing dumbing-down of the whole genre”.

“That’s not to say that I want all movies to be earnest and morally improving,” she says. “But I think that you can actually have entertainment with sassy, smart heroines rather than dim-witted ones.”

With so much attention on matters economic I think it’s really important that we don’t compromise progress that we have made – be it gender equality, environmental awareness or discrimination based on ethnicity or disability. If we are to find a new mode of operation let’s take the opportunity of making it better (note to Mr Key – your job summit may have had a high proportion of business people who generate wealth but that doesn’t make them the only ones to have good ideas, or have to deal with the consquences of your decisions).

And if we should need a little escapism from the uncomfortable reality of life is it too much to ask  that we get some decent chick flicks to transport us there? Speaking for myself I shall be searching out His Girl Friday rather than these contemporary offerings….

Goodbye girls
Kira Cochrane
March 7, 2009
Rom-com heroines used to be witty and bold; now they’re ditzy fools. What went wrong?

A STRING of recent romantic comedies portrays women as ditzy and needy – but that’s not what made the genre great.

When Rosalind Russell strides across the screen in the first scenes of His Girl Friday – arguably the greatest romantic comedy of all time – she is intent on a safe, boring life as the wife of an insurance salesman. The trouble is, the script just won’t let her do it.

Russell plays Hildy Johnson, a talented newspaper reporter, and when she tells her ex-husband and editor, Walter Burns, played by Cary Grant, that she intends to leave work and settle down in the suburbs, he springs into action to stop her. This is, of course, because he loves her but also because he needs her, for Johnson is clearly brilliant: the best reporter on the newsroom floor, a woman who can outmatch any man in the repartee stakes.

“I’m no suburban bridge player, I’m a newspaper man!” cries Johnson, hammering at her typewriter, forgetting her boring fiance and nailing the story.

Compare this with the lead character of the recently released romantic comedy Confessions Of A Shopaholic. Becky Bloomwood, played by Isla Fisher, is also a journalist but she is so far from the template laid down by Johnson in 1940 as to be unrecognisable. As the film’s title suggests, Bloomwood is obsessed with shopping. She is also incomparably stupid. In a job interview for Successful Savings magazine she is unable to open her bag to retrieve her CV, mixes up the words “fish” and “fiscal” and walks into a glass wall.

I watch Confessions Of A Shopaholic with a group of teenage girls, who I’ve brought along to find out how the target audience for romantic comedies responds to them. And I am particularly interested because of the turn the genre has taken. Romantic comedies have, of course, long been formulaic and often palpably dumb but recently they actually seem to have become contemptuous of women.

Take another recent release, He’s Just Not That Into You, which offers up some of the most depressing female characters ever. It includes one played by Ginnifer Goodwin, who is complimented by her eventual love interest with the immortal line: “I like you like I like basset hounds – there’s something kind of desperate about you.”

There’s Scarlett Johansson’s character, who takes up with a married man and is then forced to sit in a closet and listen while he has a sexual encounter with his wife. If you had to sum up this film in one word, it would be “humiliation”.

It’s not only women who have noticed the shift in the romantic comedy genre. Peter Travers, a film critic for Rolling Stone magazine, describes He’s Just Not That Into You as “a women-bashing tract disguised as a chick flick”. Diane Purkiss, an Oxford University fellow and feminist historian, feels that we have reached a nadir in the way women are portrayed on screen and says that there’s been “a depressing dumbing-down of the whole genre”.

“That’s not to say that I want all movies to be earnest and morally improving,” she says. “But I think that you can actually have entertainment with sassy, smart heroines rather than dim-witted ones.”

You can, but at the moment, we don’t. In fact, the women portrayed in today’s romantic comedies seem to have three main obsessions. There’s shopping, as seen in Confessions Of A Shopaholic and Sex And The City. There’s babies, as witnessed in Baby Mama, Juno and Knocked Up. And there’s marriage, which was front and centre of the noxious recent release Bride Wars, featuring Kate Hudson and Anne Hathaway fighting over their dream wedding. Marriage is also at the centre of Made Of Honour, License to Wed, The Wedding Planner and 27 Dresses. It’s something the teenagers find bemusing. I ask whether they’re obsessed with marriage themselves and they laugh.

“I see marriage as a bit of a negative thing,” says Bronte Norman Terrell, 17. “Very few of our parents are still together, so why would we want to go through all that?”

What’s sad is that over the years the romantic comedy has been a genuinely positive genre for women. It sailed off to a fine start in 1934 with It Happened One Night, featuring Claudette Colbert as a famous heiress on the run from her father, and Clark Gable as a luckless journalist.

The relationship between the two is initially sarcastic – as with the relationships between countless rom-com couples – but most of all it is equal.

This sets the tone for most of the great classics of the genre. So in His Girl Friday, Russell and Grant trade witticisms at terrifying speed, as do Katharine Hepburn and Grant in The Philadelphia Story. This trend continued through classics such as Pillow Talk (1959), in which Doris Day’s clever, capable interior designer could never be bested by Rock Hudson’s rakish composer; and on through When Harry Met Sally, in which the two protagonists are equally intelligent, witty and proud.

The girls are initially unenthusiastic when I give them these classic romantic comedies to watch at home but when we discuss them later, their voices light up. Shanice Calica, 16, says she thought Pillow Talk “was going to be really old-fashioned and lovey-dovey but it was quite modern and funny. The female character wasn’t throwing herself at the man, whereas in the newer films they’re willing to do anything for the guys.”

And Rhiannan Brown, 17, is impressed by Meg Ryan’s character in When Harry Met Sally. “She’s more subtle, more real life than the women in rom-coms today,” she says. “She’s working, she has her own house, she knows what she wants and what she wants is very similar to what the average woman of today wants – even though,” she adds, as only a teenager can, “it was made back in the ’80s.”

Rhiannan’s comments reflect the fact that in the classics of the genre, women are regularly portrayed as high-powered, competent, capable career women.

Dr Tamar Jeffers McDonald, an academic at the University of Kent and an expert on romantic comedies, says she finds it “quite insulting that a career woman now is something that is frowned upon. You see depictions of women who are supposedly at the top of their game, yet they can’t walk down a corridor without pouring coffee on themselves. The films are not very subtly saying, ‘Yes, they may be at the top in their jobs but actually what they really need is a man.”‘

A big part of the problem with romantic comedies, Purkiss says, is that “there aren’t enough women involved with the film industry”. Women made up only 15 per cent of the directors, writers, producers and editors of the top 250 films of 2007. The result is that those making romantic comedies often have no idea of their audience and simply resort to outlandish female stereotypes.

Purkiss points to the fights in Bride Wars: “People sneaking in and poisoning each other’s perms, which wasn’t only improbable but was on an index of probability that could only be set by someone who isn’t a woman.” Compare that with Mamma Mia!, released last year, which had a female writer, director and producer and was warm and respectful towards women, showing no judgment, for instance, about the fact that Meryl Streep’s character had clearly slept with three men in quick succession.

As women make the slow crawl towards equality in the workplace, freedom in our relationships and parity with men, romantic comedies seem determined to remind us of “our place”, to suggest that we’re incapable of further progress and should really give up.

Bronte says she “can’t think of a film where the main female character has been someone successful, someone normal”. “And if they are successful,” Shanice says, “it’s like they have to get married so that they’re not so concentrated on their work.”

The teens write off many of today’s rom-coms as predictable, cliched and exaggerated but they’re not too bothered. They prefer horror films. I ask whether there are any female characters that have captured their imagination and Bronte names Angelina Jolie’s character in Mr & Mrs Smith – an assassin on a mission to kill her own husband. When I relay this to Purkiss, she sounds relieved.

“That just shows that no matter how powerful the cultural forces raining down on you are, you can always find a role model somewhere.”

The Guardian

This story was found at: http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2009/03/06/1235842638241.html

5 comments on “HerStory – what’s happened to the quality chic-flick? ”

  1. vto 1

    I know what you mean doll..

  2. Rich Uncle Skeleton 3

    This is sad.

    It’s not like a male teenager can look for a positive role model in this years highest grossing movie Paul Blart: Mall Cop either though. Both sexes need to exercise some taste when looking for movie role models, there’s no denying that woman have to look harder though.

    Can’t we all just look up Iron Man?

  3. rave 4

    What about checking out this vid instead?
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fZIR-CK4cro

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