Wednesday, May 19, 2010

What's wrong with contemporary Hollywood, Part 1

"The Problem of 'Chick Flicks'"

In getting my series on "What's wrong with contemporary Hollywood" off the ground, I talked to a friend of mine about the various problems I wanted to highlight. One of them, I noted, was a growing gulf between "chick flicks" and "guy flicks," particularly in the comedy genre, and an increasing scarcity of films that could appeal equally to both genders. My friend said the problem was much simpler: "Too many chick flicks."

This got me thinking. How many "chick flicks" do we see in a year? Not many, compared with the number of releases from genres that appeal largely to men -- action/superhero movies (the Transformers films, the Iron Man films) and male-buddy comedies (Hot Tub Time Machine, Grown-Ups, The Hangover, Cop Out, etc., etc.). For every five male-oriented films, we may see one female-driven one. So how can there be "too many chick flicks"?

Sadly, because while action/superhero movies and male-buddy comedies may range in quality from the superb to the wretched, "chick flicks" tend to come in only one quality type: bad. If a genre is almost entirely lacking in quality, even one or two can seem like too many.

In considering the problem of "chick flicks," two questions must be addressed:

1) Is any film with a female protagonist automatically a "chick flick"?
If we accept this proposition, it follows that any film with a male protagonist would be a "guy flick," which of course is not true. Both "chick flicks" and "guy flicks" are known for their primarily stereotypical, paper-thin depictions of the opposite gender; a film like Rescue Dawn, which features no major female characters at all, is less a "guy flick" than The Hangover, which puts forth the thesis that a hooker is the only type of woman who can be trusted not to make a man's life miserable. Just as The Aviator, Gran Torino, Finding Neverland, and Schindler's List are not "guy flicks" per se, Elizabeth, House of Flying Daggers, and A Very Long Engagement cannot be dismissed out of hand as "chick flicks" simply because the films' central figures are female.
Then, of course, we have films in which the protagonist is female but is depicted less as a believable human being than as a wish-fulfillment fantasy for the male audience. The Lara Croft films and Aeon Flux stand as examples of this phenomenon. These are "guy flicks" with female leads -- and they usually stand the same chance of being good as your average "chick flick."

2) Are "chick flicks" bad by definition?
Answer: No. For proof, one can look back to the late 1930s and 1940s, when Bette Davis reigned as queen of the "woman's picture" (a much more dignified term than "chick flick"). Two of Davis's finest films, 1939's Dark Victory and 1942's Now, Voyager, are clearly aimed at female audiences. They have all the earmarks: a charming but patently non-threatening male lead, a bit lacking in charisma (George Brent in Dark Victory, Paul Henried in Now, Voyager); close female friendships (in Dark Victory, the Davis character's closest bond is with her personal secretary, played by Geraldine Fitzgerald), and a focus on domestic, rather than on national or global, problems. Yet both manage to be splendid films. How?

One single word: gravitas.

In Dark Victory, Davis's character, initially a shallow social butterfly, faces her own mortality and discovers both romance and inner strength in the process; she dies a genuinely heroic death. In Now, Voyager, her character suffers a mental breakdown in the first scenes (the victim of years of emotional abuse from a cold-hearted mother) and must piece her shattered inner life back together. The love she finds is doomed from the outset, but it convinces her that she does indeed deserve to be loved, and this gives her the courage to face her mother without crumbling. Her triumph lies in discovering her best self. In both these films, the characters' journeys matter.

Therein lies the reason most contemporary "chick flicks" are bad: the gravitas, the sense of smoething important at stake, is missing. These films are as light and airy as cotton candy, as their glam characters play at falling in love with very little emotional risk to themselves. If I'm going to invest my time in a film, even a comedy, I want the characters' decisions to carry at least a little weight and consequence. Their focus need not be global; the Davis films prove that. But I want them to matter.

Very little matters in your average "chick flick," which by and large has far less positive to say about women in general than the "woman's picture" of yore. Davis's characters in Dark Victory and Now, Voyager emerge as towers of strength, but they stand doubly strong and tall compared with the fashionistas in Confessions of a Shopaholic, Sex and the City, Mamma Mia and When in Rome.

Until Hollywood remembers how to turn out a "woman's picture" with a bit of gravitas, there will continue to be "too many chick flicks."

Monday, May 10, 2010

Mamas, Don't Let Your Daughters Grow Up to Be Bella Swan

A friend of mine tells me that "Isabella" is now the most popular name for baby girls. In itself this news isn't too alarming; "Isabella" is a pretty name, one of those charming cognomens that can be found in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels. But my friend follows up with the information that two of the top names for baby boys are "Jacob" and "Cullen."

Now I must roll my eyes, as I learn the resurgence of "Isabella" is aprt and parcel of that mad craze, Twilight fever.

One need not be a feminist to be bothered by the gender politics of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series, in which female helplessness and subservience are romanticized without an instant's question. Its weak, insipid "heroine," Bella Swan, fainst and falls over at the drop of a proverbial hat, stands in perpetual need of rescue, and centers every ambition and desire on her grand passion for the brave, dashing vampire hero, Edward Cullen. The series is wildly popular with girls partly, I'm told, because while Bellla is distressingly ordinary, with no gifts or talents, no special qualities of any kind, she manages to inspire desperate love in both Edward and hunky werewolf Jacob. If such an unexceptional person can be so adored, anyone can, and this is ostensibly reassuring for the books' target audience.

But I can't help thinking back to my own teenage years, and the sorts of books and characters to which I was drawn. I did not want to step into the shoes of an unexceptional person. I wanted to imagine doing great things, conquering difficulties with wit and imagination, and winning battles that mattered. I wanted to live through remarkable minds, not vacant ones. And I can't help questioning what it means that such a vast number of girl readers accept a nonentity like Bella Swan as a heroine -- and even more, what might motivate new mothers to name their daughters after her.

I hope it's just because they like the name.

As a reader I still love the thrill of vicarious experience and search for novels (mostly in the historical fiction or fantasy genres) that feature remarkable heroines. But books' power to sway the decisions or influence the identity of an adult reader is minimal. The girls who are reading the Twilight books are still quesitoning what life and love and the world might hold for them and are therefore highly susceptible to the messages in the stories they absorb. I want to shake them and tell them they don't have to be Bella Swans. They can daydream higher and farther than that, and better books can help them.

Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden has lost none of its power over time, and part of it comes from the plain, unpleasant female protagonist's initiation into beauty and joy. Lucy Maud Montgomery's titular Anne of Green Gables goes on wild flights of fancy and carries her audience with her. The heroine of Gene Stratton Porter's A Girl of the Limberlost overcomes parental abuse and neglect and discovers her worth in her love for science and music. I don't really have to mention Alcott's Little Women, do I? Well, I will anyway, because both fiery Jo and scatterbrained Amy tap into their artistic powers as they move from girlhood to womanhood. These are girls with personalities, with the potential to be exceptional.

Want something a little more modern? The novels of Gail Carson Levine and Tamora Pierce feature smart, active heroines who can save the kingdom and get the guy. Robin McKinley's protagonists in The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown make Xena Warrior Princess look like a wimp. The heroine of Shannon Hale's The Goose Girl is quieter and far less martial, but she discovers the keys to saving herself from a murderous impostor and her people from an unnecessary war. These girls are real heroines, not walking vacuums waiting to be filled by an all-consuming passion for a sparkling vampire.

Even a girl named "Isabella" may aspire to their heights.