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Fettered by a faux stereotype

What Do 'Clueless' And 'girlfight' Have In Common? Not A Thing. And That's What's Wrong With The Term 'chick Flick.'

November 13, 2005|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

EARLY last month, Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary added the term "chick flick" to its 11th edition. But I still don't know what it means. The dictionary definition -- "Chick flick (noun) 1988: a motion picture intended to appeal esp. to women" -- doesn't describe a type of movie or define a genre or even identify an audience by its tastes or interests.

It doesn't do much, actually, beyond legitimize the already generally accepted notion that there are movies for everyone, and then there are movies for women. Like a miracle household product, it marginalizes as it defines.

Maybe the dictionary is just shy, but it fails to mention what just about anyone could tell you: That "chick flick" is a term that originated, and is still commonly used, as a way to dismiss a movie so sappy or saccharine only a girl could like it. The term was later reclaimed by women to describe any movie that attempts to reflect contemporary female experience, deals with issues of importance to women, or lampoons a certain type of girl or girly predicament. Nora Ephron even used it as a tongue-in-cheek joke in 1993, when in "Sleepless in Seattle" Tom Hanks calls "An Affair to Remember" a "chick movie."

But in the last decade or so, "chick flick" seems to have once again become the dread "communist" or "terrorist" of cinematic allegations -- one random accusation and it's all over. If the definitions remain somewhat unclear, the result of their overuse is not: "Chick flick" herds vastly different films into one cramped, unventilated ghetto. If a movie meets one of the above criteria -- be it as serious as "North Country" or as fluffy as "The Wedding Date" -- someone, somewhere, will call it a "chick flick." The term has created a category, in other words, not the other way around.

And it's a blanket category at that, the smothering kind. It has made it so that a movie like "Wedding Crashers" is simply considered a comedy, whereas movies like "Romy and Michele's High School Reunion" (a satire with female characters) or "The Sweetest Thing" (a raunchy comedy) are considered chick flicks -- even when they share more in common with contemporary mainstream comedies than with the "women's pictures" of the 1930s and '40s from which, Athena-like, they are supposed to have sprung.

Like many reclaimed pejoratives, "chick flick" remains a volatile term. You can tell by the way some handle it gingerly and others lob it like a grenade. For example, in July 2004, O magazine published an article ranking the "50 Greatest Chick Flicks of All Time," which included Stephen Daldry's "The Hours" at No. 11. That point was echoed in an interview on Canadian television in which Daldry said of his movie, "I don't think this is a chick flick at all. I think there are real serious issues about how we live our lives and change our lives that are relevant to everybody."

Similarly, Curtis Hanson's "In Her Shoes" was praised for being "no mere chick flick" (Yahoo News); "a chick flick with both substance and style" (the Hollywood Reporter); and "the fall's blue chip chick flick" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer). The Detroit News was happy to report "it's a chick flick for non-chicks, too" and the Gannett News Service called it "A Chick Flick With Manly Appeal."

In other words, by lumping all movies about women into the same category, quality female-centric movies are put in the awkward position of having to assert their quality by denying the female-centric label. So much for reclaiming.

Molly Haskell put it perfectly when she wrote in the Guardian, "in simultaneously arguing for the 'seriousness' of women's concerns, then relegating the films that address them to a ghetto, we find ourselves caught in a conundrum." It's that conundrum that leads to evaluations such as Roger Ebert's description of "In Her Shoes" as being " ... no soppy chick flick, and anyway what is a 'chick flick' but an insulting term for a movie that's about women instead of the usual testosterone carriers."

If the term is indeed insulting and meaningless, why mention it at all? Why cite a separate standard by which not to judge a movie you happen to like? Because it has become a compulsory addition to any discussion about movies about women -- and anyone, male or female, who makes one winds up spending at least some of their promotional time living the label down.

On NPR's "All Things Considered," Michele Norris introduced an interview with Hanson using the new Webster's entry followed by the question, "Does the film fit that definition?" No wonder Hanson "resists the chick flick label," as Norris says, "even though high heels are a central theme, he says the story that follows the sisters and their grandmother played by Shirley MacLaine has universal appeal." [NPR-ish mock-ingenuous emphasis theirs.]

A PERCEPTION ENCROACHES

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