From Confessions of a Shopaholic

Simone de Beauvoir famously announced that “One is not born a woman, but becomes one,” in her 1949 treatise The Second Sex. She might have added: “But it takes Hollywood to turn one into an hysterical fashion-mongering man-craving anorexic caricature.” For, increasingly, the modern Hollywood women’s picture or so-called chick flick has become home to the worst kind of regressive pre-feminist stereotype and misogynistic cliché.

Movies such as the recent Anne Hathaway/Kate Hudson catfight Bride Wars or the forthcoming Confessions of a Shopaholic are aimed exclusively at women, and yet feature female characters who are variously neurotic, idiotic, label-obsessed, weight-obsessed, man-obsessed or weddingobsessed, and often all at the same time. In Confessions of a Shopaholic, for instance, the gifted comedic actress Isla Fisher plays Rebecca Bloomwood, a wannabe Manhattan fashionista who lives only for designer clothes and will happily fight to the death for a pair of sale-price Gucci boots.

Rebecca wears pink and leaves the important stuff such as thinking, to her patronising male colleagues: at a job interview she hilariously confuses the word “fish” with “fiscal”. The boys, to a man, find her adorable, even though her greatest achievement involves matching a black Saint Laurent coat with a purple dress.

Other incoming chick flicks will hardly give the women’s movement much cause for celebration. Films such as He’s Just Not That Into You (Jennifer Aniston and Drew Barrymore lead a cast of women desperate for commitment from their men), All About Steve (Sandra Bullock plays a semi-stalker who chases her one-night stand across the country in the hope that he’ll marry her) and The Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (the title says enough) all point to a version of womanhood that at best is mired in cliché and at worst in hateful caricature.

“The heroines are getting dumber and dumber,” says the feminist historian and Fellow of Oxford University Diane Purkiss, who suggests that these cartoon protagonists are merely reflecting a decline in our own culture into one that, for women, is image-obsessed (see celebrity culture, size zero models, Heat magazine, etc).

“Women’s lives today feel oppressive, more so than they did ten years ago,” Purkiss says. “And the more oppressive they feel, the dumber these portrayals of women become.”

Chick flicks, she says, thrive on a form of institutionalised schadenfreude. “The entertainment industry allows you, the audience member, to pat yourself on the back and say: ‘I’m smarter than her, I’m more together than her, and I’m not as stupidly anorexic as her.’”

Things were different in 1998, when the contemporary chick flick was born. Ten years ago Bridget Jones’s Diary was still a best-selling novel and the winner of the British Book of the Year award. The first season of Sex and the City had just begun on HBO and the Spice Girls were in the middle of their Spiceworld tour.

The chick-flick heroine that emerged then was often ditzy, yes, but she also had recourse to irony, self-satire and intelligence. When Bridget the movie appeared in 2001 and eventually scooped more than £150 million at the international box office, the chick flick became a hot Tinseltown property. However, for every smart-thinking Bridget Jones, Legally Blonde or Devil Wears Prada there appeared a slew of movies that appealed to the genre’s baser instincts.Films such as 27 Dresses, Made of Honour, License to Wed and What Happens in Vegas were cookie-cutter movies defined by lazy stereotypes (wedding overkill, anyone?) and explicit anti-feminism.

The reason for all this sinister discord is ultimately, of course, men. “Fewer than 10 per cent of Hollywood films are written by women, and fewer than 6 per cent directed by women,” explains Melissa Silverstein, a movie marketing consultant and founder of the company Women & Hollywood. “So really what you are seeing is a white male version of women. And that is just unacceptable.”

It is nonetheless a version of womanhood that appeals to an enormous amount of female moviegoers, argues Archie Thomas, foreign correspondent for Variety magazine. “Chick flicks such as Sex and the City get repeat business from female audiences,” Thomas says. “Which means that women go to see it together the first time then they go back with their mothers, sisters or daughters to experience it again.”

“Women go to these movies, because they want to go to the movies,” Silverstein counters. “And most of the time there are no other options out there.”

And certainly last year Sex and the City’s blunderbuss marketing campaign, which cost a reported £35 million, left women in no doubt that there was only one must-see movie around that summer. She adds that, consequently, the real herculean job to be done is to motivate women away from chick flicks and towards the few edgier, more interesting movies that might normally go unnoticed. “I just worked on Emma Thompson’s movie, Last Chance Harvey,” Silverstein says. “So the message I’ve got to get across to women is: ‘You’ve got to go and support this movie. It may not be perfect, but no movie is, and if you do support it then you’ll have the chance to see more movies like it in future.’”

The antidote to the chick-flick burden, says the former Hollywood agent Gayle Nachliss, is to populate the production sector with women. “In the boardroom we’re doing fine,” says Nachliss, who is now executive director of the LA-based Women In Film organisation, which encourages women’s participation in all aspects of movie-making. “And we have successful women agents, managers and publicists. But this is not the case creatively. And it’s why we end up with a situation where Hollywood thinks that all women care about is weddings and shopping. We constitute half of the population, and we’re starved of entertainment.”

The good news, for right-thinking women everywhere, is that the contemporary cardboard chick flick may yet eat itself without any help from feminist producers or activist audiences. If the glut of such films continues there’s a very real danger that the genre will implode in a market filled with squealing, pratfalling heroines.

“It happened before, to some extent, with the horror genre,” Thomas says. “The market can take only a certain amount of these types of movies. If you flood it with them the audience appetite is lessened. There is, ultimately, not that many Sex and the Citys to be had every year.”

The women’s movies that would be left in a post-chick-flick world are not hard to imagine, Silverstein says. They’re already here. “There are amazing movies out there, but you have to find them,” she says, pointing to the Michelle Williams road movie, Wendy and Lucy. “These are not overtly serious movies or so-called feminist movies. They’re just films about women – but fully formed women.”

Kevin Maher
Times Online