Rethinking the Chick Flick

The wild success of Sex and the City and the imminent release of American Girl have raised hopes that Hollywood finally understands the box office power of women. Sex and the City and American Girl create worlds at once contrived and heart-felt. Other than that, though, they have little in common, and two films don’t make a general trend. Nevertheless, appearing at the elegiac close of the first serious presidential campaign by a woman, these films remind us that woman are to Hollywood what African-Americans are to the Democratic Party: its most loyal constituency, and its most taken for granted.

And yet, the complaints about Hollywood’s gender bias, while justified, are often oversimplified, even naïve.  Take, for instance, this broadside by LA Times reporter Rachel Abramowitz, related in the breathless style of a gossip columnist. The attack is scattershot, rehashing a number of old grievances. I’ll take up a few of the most provocative ones, voiced either by Abramowitz or one of her sources:

"I hope [‘Sex and the City’] will at least bring about more of a trend toward films made specifically for adult female women": So none are made now? Really? People are always saying that Hollywood doesn’t make enough films for women, but they never have any number to back up their claims. What’s the ratio of films made for men versus the films made for women? At least one major genre, the romantic comedy, is aimed primarily (although not exclusively) at women.   Hollywood is skewed more toward youth than toward gender. If you’re over 34 years of age of either gender, the pickings are pretty slim. And what, exactly, are the defining qualities of a specifically for adult female women–and them only? Which brings me to my next point.

"We want to see ourselves on screen the way we actually are, not some bad Xerox versions of ourselves": Fair enough, but how do you define, let alone depict, the way women really are? I don’t think anybody would seriously claim that the four main characters in Sex and the City represent the true face of American womanhood. They may speak to the desires of a portion of middle-class white women in this country, but that’s not the same thing. You could argue that the desires are real because they inform the activities of real-life women, but even here questions remain. To what degree is a woman’s life governed by a wish to possess Carrie Bradshaw’s shoes? The weirdness of her outfits, I would argue, externalize the lack of comfort and authenticity many women feel when they wear runway fashions. I’ve always wondered how truly deep the affinities ran between SATC and its audience. Our desires aren’t necessarily our own. We get them from the movies, among other places. In any case, early feminist film scholars struggled with these same questions in the 1970s before finally giving up. That’s why Women’s Studies is now generally called Gender Studies.

"[Women] made such Judd Apatow films as ‘Knocked Up’ and ‘Forgetting Sarah Marshall,’ whose protagonists might be oafy guys but whose audiences, according to Universal, were 57% female": This figure isn’t as shocking as it might appear. It’s possible for a woman to derive pleasure from a text even when it’s oriented toward men. I’ve already told the story of a commitment feminist intellectual with a passion for Led Zeppelin, the avatars of male adolescent desire. I’ve known female professors of film studies–women who probably read The Second Sex by the third grade–who genuinely enjoyed Spider-Man and The Terminator series. To claim that women can only enjoy films narrowly focused on them–or will automatically enjoy those that are–is to underestimate the sophistication of American films and the women who watch them.

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