In Defense of the Chick Flick
Every single one of us who has been a “Woman in Film” for more than five minutes is sick of the phrase “Women in Film.” This is particularly true of those of us who have been in the business for—let’s just say—more than five minutes. We, in various groupings, have been interviewed, empanelled, moderated, headlined, icon-ized, vilified, statisticized, and photographed—without and with glasses, and with various sizes of cell phones.
This year was a good year for us all. Some even dubbed it “The Year of the Woman”! The chick flick returned to the marketplace with thunderous approval from all female quadrants. Usually, it’s young boys who engine the business, because they see the most movies—so the big franchise movies which drive the business, the Transformers and Batmans take up most of the cash and energy. But this year, the upper female quadrant (ages 24 and up) flocked to see movies like Julie and Julia ($130 million gross), and It’s Complicated ($215 million), while the lower female quadrant, (ages 12 to 24), turned out for Valentine’s Day ($215 million), The Ugly Truth ($200 million), He’s Just Not that Into You ($180 million), and Dear John ($80 million)—not to mention the phenomenon, Twilight in the new crossover genre, romantic-horror. With box office numbers like these, the industry could be making movies starring and written by women for years to come.
And then came the capper: Kathryn Bigelow’s triumphant win at the Oscars for Best Director, the first for a woman in its 82-year history. Even though Kathryn famously doesn’t self-identify as a gender-based director, and her work has been decidedly action based (or, as one female critic put it, “masterly”), every woman and girl I know was rooting for her as a role model. We all knew what this meant, as you could hear in the exclamation of the presenter, Barbra Streisand, who called out, upon her win, “The time has come!” Streisand endured brutal sexism in her early efforts at breaking the directing glass ceiling, even though at the time she was one of the biggest stars in the world.
But surprisingly, Kathryn’s win set off a torrent of sniping among the chattering class of women critics. Instead of celebrating this year’s impressive box office numbers, and our all-too-few female directors (and even fewer writer-directors), it served as a launching pad for attacks on the romantic comedy.
The implication was that Kathryn is cool because she doesn’t make “chick flicks,” the kinds of movies that women have been flocking to malls to see – and that I make and have been making for over 20 years. The “chick flick,” a genre I love, defend, and honor—as do almost all the girls who rooted so hard for Kathryn’s win (no matter how she self-identifies)—can’t be killed by a stick or a pen, even if it is detested by critics. Just like Horror or Action or Thriller or Sci-fi or Fantasy, the genre is here to stay.
I’ve known Kathryn since 1983 when we were both starting out in LA about the same time. We were in a beginning gymnastics class together, both of us jocks, she the super-tall one, and me the pint-sized one. We got on great, as we are both girls’ girls. I had worked on Flashdance and Adventures in Babysitting, and I knew that her then-boyfriend Jim Cameron was trying to help her get an action movie made. It seemed normal to me that she made action films—my then-partner, Debra Hill, had made Halloween and Escape from New York. It never crossed our minds that there was some kind of chasm between the kinds of movies we made, and we certainly never saw ourselves in different worlds.
But the writers now extolling Ms. Bigelow scoff at the “ghetto” they call the romantic comedy, which they claim “entraps” so much of Hollywood’s female talent. Yet this “ghetto” is like Scarsdale for us. It’s a suburban community where we can work steadily when the market kindly allows. It’s where women play the lead, and get to be the one with the coming-of-age story. That these tales are now being financed by the studio system reflects the fact that our audience loves seeing themselves not as girlfriends, or sluts, or baggage, or dumb hos (as in Heather Graham’s hilarious Hangover girlfriend), but as protagonists with real dialogue, and jokes we are not the butt of.
In the pages of the New York Times—a notable outlet for the vilification of chick flicks, and one in which I have never received a good review for a hit intended for women—Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers, the most successful writer-directors for women in the world, were called “lesser talents.” That blew my mind straight out of my skull. They are our auteurs and our hit-makers, our trailblazers for future female writer-directors. Their movies have cumulatively made more than 2.3 billion dollars internationally at the box office—and that isn’t even why they’re amazing.
I sat through Nancy Meyers’s Something’s Gotta Give three separate times, each making me happier. Is that a crime? That movie reawakened an enjoyment of movies in women of all ages and shapes all over the country, in red states and blue. And Nora’s movies – I can’t even begin!*... She makes girls smart and funny, and depicts working women in a political and social context. Is that so bad? Do you really prefer the female characters in Judd Apatow or Kevin Smith movies? Or perhaps the indie chimeras in movies like 500 Days of Summer? Are those really characters you identify with? Really?
In Nora and Nancy’s movies, women are smart; they have moral conflicts, they’re hilarious, and they come up with great retorts. They have real experiences, like going through menopause, and – What, Ms. Critic? You don’t? You only diffuse bombs? What’s wrong with you? It’s not Nora and Nancy you hate. It’s the market, which is composed of your sisters, your nieces, your teenage daughter, your mothers, and your mother-in-law. (Ok, I can understand about the mother-in-law …)
Together, Nancy and Nora are responsible for the resuscitation of Meryl Streep's career, and arguably, for the totally unexpected resurgence of the upper female market. (A research genius I know once called the upper female quadrant the hardest one to get from the house to the theater.) I would argue that Something’s Gotta Give paved the way for The Devil Wears Prada, which in turn paved the way for Julie and Julia, which opened the gates for the rest of the over-40 women’s movies now getting made—leading to the rebirth of the entire women’s market, with untold opportunities for actresses across the industry.
Are the critics who belittle these movies dyspeptic? Are they self-hating women? Are they other-women-haters who want to be the only woman on the tennis court (as we used to say in the '80s)? They certainly don’t seem to hate these kinds of movies when men are the protagonists, as in Judd Apatow’s boy-fantasies, where underemployed characters played by Seth Rogen, etc. get the impossible girl and fart. (How adorable.) How about Superbad, or Along Came Polly or… I could name scores in this genre written by men that don’t get such dismissive treatment. These man-centric movies are not what the young actresses want: they want to be the star. And they’re not what young female writers want, either: they want to tell their own stories, and to become directors someday. But if they do, will they have to worry about critics biased against them? Even critics of their own gender?
The New York Times suggests that we Women in Film should find some sympathetic studio exec (as if!) and make a Hattie McDaniel biopic instead of another romantic comedy. Let’s think through how that works. Imagine we do find such a sap. No one goes to see the movie—and the gullible guy or gal who green-lit it gets fired. And the actress (Mo’Nique was suggested) can’t make another movie. There are consequences for such thinking in this town.
When I was starting out, the first women studio heads and writers were just getting into their perches—development execs learning their chops. I started developing Contact with Carl Sagan when I first got to Hollywood, but there was no woman at the time with enough drawing power to star in a $100-million movie. That took 10 years. Still, we pressed on until time, a great script, and Jodie Foster’s eventual box-office clout could make it possible. One of our jobs is to keep women working, which we do by keeping women coming to the movies. And doing that means making good, smart, often funny movies that women can identify with—with terrific dialogue we all remember and cherish, and stories that illuminate our lives and decisions and turning points.
The bottom line, as we “Women in Film” know all too well, is that our ranks have not grown with the size of our audiences. Romantic comedies are having a grand moment, and young and older women have returned to the habit of movie-going, which means that studios, producers, movie stars, and starlets can actually make them. But, as I found this season, there are not enough women directors to “man” the cameras (so to speak). The lack of women directors is a sad fact of life. Kathryn Bigelow’s thrilling Best Director win may help turn things around. But as a very wise person said to me recently, “It's interesting that there's almost no achievement a woman can make that can't be used to put other women down.” We can only hope the cynical and dismissive chorus won’t discourage a new generation from joining the rom-com ranks and telling their stories behind the camera.
*It should be noted that I produced Nora's directorial debut, This is My Life, and executive produced Sleepless in Seattle, and that I love her very much, but this is beside the point.