Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Chick Flicks: A Bogus Phrase for a Bogus Genre

If ever there was film genre term that I wish would disappear it’s the chick flick. As one who always champions movies as a democratic art form, it’s beyond ludicrous to hear people – usually women – dismiss the opinions of men when it comes to (mostly) romantic stories just because they happen to be a member of the wrong gender. I first encountered this dubious term back in 1993 when I told a group of women that I found Nora Ephron’s romantic weeper Sleepless in Seattle rather creepy. In the movie, Meg Ryan pursues (you could say stalks) a wistful widowed man (Tom Hanks) until he finally hooks up with her. I suggested that I didn’t find the premise the least bit romantic because if the roles had been reversed, and it was Hanks shadowing Ryan, the picture would have been a sleazy thriller. Think Sleeping with the Enemy (1991) rather than Sleepless in Seattle. A few of the women though dismissed my observation and stated that I just didn’t get Sleepless in Seattle because I was a guy and didn’t understand a chick flick when I saw one. (My response: What the fuck is a chick flick?)

Following the insanity of that line of gender demarcation, it would stand to reason then that only guys should review action films that blow up shit real good. And maybe only blacks should weigh in on anything starring Denzel Washington and Queen Latifah. Perhaps Jews are the only ones qualified to discuss the oeuvre of Adam Sandler. Anyway, I think you get the idea. I thought of all this when reading the reactions to Toronto Globe and Mail film critic Rick Groen’s pan of the second Sex and the City movie. A number of women (and a few men) cried foul because, since Rick was a man, he obviously didn’t understand what made the movie appealing to females. First of all, the idea of designating such a limiting, condescending term as chick flick to movies like Sex and the City is insulting to both men and women. It suggests that only women like romantic stories, so therefore they should only be allowed to review them. Forget that I know many women who love action fare and despise sentimental movies, just as I know many men (including me) who loved Gillian Armstrong’s stirring adaptation of Little Women (1994). And while we’re at it, why not bring up director Katherine Bigelow, a woman who made a number of (mostly) redundant violent action pictures until, with The Hurt Locker (2009), she finally made a powerful film about the very underpinnings of the genre.

This is why I think this chick flick nonsense gets at something deeper and even more insidious in the culture. At bottom, the use of the term is an attempt to undermine film criticism and treat men and women as mere advertising demographics in which we become perfect fodder for the marketing machinery of film distributors. Using Sex and the City as a perfect example, the women who complained about Rick Groen’s pan didn’t even address any of his criticisms of the movie. Furthermore, the letter writers could only suggest that if a woman had written the review she would have enjoyed the movie since she was female. But that suggests that Sex and the City is beyond critical analysis, meaning that women automatically buy into the movie’s advertising since it was being marketed to them in the first place. In short, what made these letter writers truly angry was that Rick Groen didn’t buy into the brand, but instead encouraged readers to consider what they were consuming and why. That’s what a critic – male and female – does. Or, at least, that’s what they’re supposed to do.

I haven’t seen the new Sex and the City yet, but I saw the first one and I found it to be a rat’s nest of product fetishism and sit-com banality. And this is coming from a guy who loved the TV show (at least for the first few seasons), because it was everything that the movie wasn’t. From week to week, I was fascinated by the show’s ability to take us inside the romantic pursuits of urban single women, at their most candid, discussing the men they dated and why they dumped them. At times, Sex and the City (the TV show) resembled Sandra Shamas’s one-woman show, My Boyfriend’s Back and There’s Going to Be Laundry (1987), which also took you into the comic absurdity of romantic longing from a woman’s perspective. And, like Sex and the City, it wasn’t the least bit self-congratulatory. But the first Sex and the City movie was all self-congratulatory, a callow betrayal of what made the show so distinctly appealing – to both genders.

I think, though, that this narrow-minded assignation of chick flick is nothing more than a defensive posture assumed by those who just want to enjoy the movie without having anyone make them think about it. After all, what makes people susceptible to advertising is their willingness to believe that the product being sold to them is what helps define them. And if women want to buy and endorse the most primitive forms of romantic sentimentality, don’t blame men for pointing that out - unless they’re trying to sell you a male version of that same crock.

--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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