Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Defining "Chick Flicks"

I'm going to be talking about chick flicks a bunch, because I freaking love them, and when I don't, I love to hate them. And before I do that, it seems wise to unpack and pin down this rather nebulous term. What constitutes a chick flick? According to Wikipedia:

Chick-flick is a slang term for a film genre [...] designed to appeal to a largely female target audience.

That's the definition you'll come across most often. And fair enough, but it doesn't quite work for the purposes of quantifying the term. Creator intent is a very difficult thing to gauge and always ends up being subjective. Look at a discussion about any piece of fiction more complex than the back of a cereal box and you'll find disagreement about this. (See, for example, the discussions about whether Lord of the Rings is intended to be an analogy for WWII.) And we're talking modern studio movies here, big lumbering golems of dozens of scripts and rewrites who really do not have a single creator. The intent of the studio might conflict with the intent of writers, actors and directors, and so on. Maybe the studio wanted a movie that targets women, the director wanted to showcase their awesome technique, the first writer wanted to tell a story about their life experiences that got lost in rewrites...

"Movie designed to appeal to women" isn't useful here for that reason. It's not possible to know what everyone connected to the movie intended to do with it. It's too subjective. We'll have to dig a little deeper.

1. Movies and the Male Gaze

I'll be brief about this, because exploring the concept of the Male Gaze in cinema is just way beyond the scope of this post. If you're unfamiliar with the term, this is a good place to start.

Chick flicks, as movies that target a female audience, must by definition lack overt Male Gazing. Any movie that springs to mind when people generally think of examples of chick flicks is told from a female perspective. It doesn't necessarily have to have a sole female protagonist, but the events that unfold during the course of the movie must be experienced through one or more female proxies, must inform their character arc and must present them as subject and not as object

I'd call that requirement number one: a chick flick must have at least one female-identifying lead and present the narrative as it relates to her.

It's not always 100% clear and perfect and debate can certainly exist (consider, for example, the intentional use of male gaze as a setup for a joke in Miss Congeniality), but as a rule of thumb, it works well enough.

And although we're narrowing the field, that still leaves some room for error. Terminator deals with a female protagonist, the story centers around her, informs her arc and leaves her as the subject in control of where the story goes. And I've yet to see Terminator on a list of chick flicks. So there is definitely more to it.

2. Gender essentialism and the Movies

Society has a tendency to take common human experiences and arbitrarily assign them "for girls" and "for boys" labels. The color pink is coded female, the color blue is coded male. Women like fashion, men like carpentry. If I say construction worker, you'll probably think of a man. If I say kindergarten teacher, you probably think female. Men are logical and action-prone, women are emotional and prone to irrationality.

Whether the movie itself addresses this is inconsequential. Bend It Like Beckham is overwhelmingly categorized as a chick flick, and it puts the damaging effects of gender essentialism on young women front and center. Other movies categorized as chick flicks are either completely unaware of this issue or choose not to address it, but buy into the idea of it anyway.

So, there's my second requirement for a chick flick in my opinion: for a movie to be classified as a chick flick, the plot must center around themes and elements coded "female"

Things like romance, fashion, relationships, exploration of emotions, childcare, beauty and body image, glossy magazines and such.

Note that I'm not saying these things are exclusive to the female sphere of existence, not at all. Relationships, after all, are things men are often in. Emotions, yes, men have those. Men lead the fashion industry. Men may have a calling to work in child care. Many men are (single) parents. And that's all completely ignoring the rainbow of gender identities out there. What I'm saying is that these things are coded female. Society perceives them as being the specialty of cis-women, as opposed to cis-men (the only gender identities in existence), and therefor exclusively for them.

But by those two requirements, Antichrist would be chick flick, and while in that case it's possible to call it that, if you squint, I think you'd be hard pressed to find a whole lot of people who would categorize it as such. So more rules are in order.

It's probably time to address the fowl in the room.

3. Chicks are Animals

Society impresses on us the idea that fiction made by/for men can be enjoyed by everyone, while fiction made by/for women can only be enjoyed by women. And that's something worth exploring a little more thoroughly.

For example, the Lord of the Rings movies are for everyone to enjoy, even though they are directed by a man, based on a book by a man, the story is told from the perspective of men and all (or most, depending on your definition) of the main characters are men. But women are not out of place in the audience. They largely (though not absolutely, not by a long shot) have societal permission to enjoy these movies without having their motives, and more importantly, their dignity questioned.

By contrast, here are the words of a male movie critic about his experience watching what may be the quintessential modern chick flick: Sex and the City:

Whatever you think of the film or the HBO series that spawned it, the jammed cinemas were an intimidating place for any heterosexual male to venture. This reporter was (forcibly) dispatched to a Manhattan theater to determine whether the ultimate "chick flick" could be a welcoming experience for a guy. And with look of determination that said, yes, he was confident enough about himself to make such a trip, this reporter went. Talk about embedded journalism.

(Content note: the full article may be unsafe for people who find descriptions of women with terminology usually reserved for dangerous but weak-minded animals triggering.)

This movie theater full of women enjoying themselves frightens and intimidates this reporter (no homo). The level of confidence and bravery needed to do what this hero did is not within the grasp of just any man. Still, his unwavering dedication not withstanding, it took a metaphorical act of violence to coerce him into exposing himself to this. Because in his mind, sharing a movie experience with a large group of women is akin to reporting from a war zone.

It's an old review, but it illustrates the point quite clearly. Men (no homo) are diminished for enjoying or even being near movies coded "for women". For a manly man, it is humiliating to be seen enjoying something that mainly women enjoy.

Of course, "Sex and the City" doesn't represent all things feminine, just the cliches: clothes, gossiping about men, Vogue magazine,...

... conversations about breast cancer, menopause, sexuality after a certain age, feminism, healthy friendships between women in a world that expects them to be in constant competition... You know, dippy crap like that.

So yeah, just in case I didn't make this clear: "chick" is a derogatory term.

In a society where women are not only treated as Other Than The Default, but also as Lesser Than The Default, the experiences and elements that are coded female are also perceived as being less important than experiences coded male. This leads to these subjects being treated with at least some levity. As the name "chick flick" implies, these are not movies that are meant to appeal to everyone.

So there's requirement number three: the elements coded female must be treated with levity by the filmmakers and/or the straight cis-male audience.

Hence the genre that's become almost synonymous with chick flick: the romantic comedy.

So, to recap, for a movie to be a chick flick:
  1. it must have at least one female-identifying lead and present the narrative as it relates to her
  2. the plot must center around themes and elements coded "female"
  3. these themes and elements must be treated with levity

Your Mileage May Vary

It's absolutely not my intent to have this be the end-all, be-all on the subject. I'm not trying to present a definition that works for all movies or that I consider to the True and Just. It's still subjective, it doesn't cover every movie deemed chick flick by far, and it probably includes some movies that really shouldn't be included. This is just the definition I'll be working with when I decide what movies to look at as the blog marches on. I can think of exceptions to the rule, and I'm sure you can too. If you disagree with my definition, great! I would love to hear about your thoughts on the subject.

Just know that in the future, when I use the term "chick flick", this is the definition I'll be working with. 

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