I have always been a big fan of chick flicks. I have spent hours of my life looking up lists of top 10 chick flick must-watches and then binge-watched them for days. I have wept at their cheesiest moments and laughed at their corniest jokes. So when I embarked on the journey of writing about something that I was personally invested it, I was naturally very excited. After a seemingly endless struggle with really heavy academic writing, I gave up and did what I do the best. I grabbed a bucket of my favourite ice-cream and embarked on a chick flick marathon, all in the name of research of course.
A lot has been said and written about the chick culture. In the last couple of days I’ve read plenty about the ways in which it encourages consumerist behaviour and the how it creates white, heterosexual subjects who are often described as flippant, frivolous, unsure and shallow, devoid of intellectual pursuits and perennially engaged in the endless search for Mr. Right. Most of it seemed painfully familiar.
The genre is especially problematic because it attempts to make strange generalizations of what content seems to appeal to women. It seems to have found an answer to the age old question: What do women want? As if women’s desires and aspirations can ever be boxed into one homogenous category.
The nomenclature of the genre also does not help its case. The popular notion regarding chick flicks is that it is consumed mostly by women. It is made for an audience that is predominantly female and thus has female protagonists. Again, an underlying assumption that men cannot be consumers of a culture that sells stories dealing with women’s lives and yet the reverse is almost never true.
As if women’s desires and aspirations could ever be boxed into one homogenous category!
Some of the most commonly used tropes and themes in the genre is romance with an office co-worker, the complexities of the urban dating scene, and an aspiration for unaffordable fashion labels. There’s a literal as well as figurative ‘pinkification’ of the genre. Men do not end up being consumers of such stories in order to preserve fragile masculinities that are threatened by a hue and the apparent femininity of the themes.
Why then, do people across the world still swear by the genre? What is so entertaining about chick culture that it engulfs its audience and creates a framework where it’s skewed and often misrepresented characters become acceptable, even likeable? And why do I still remain a chick culture loyalist?
I believe that its main point of contention is also the reason for its immense popularity: the protagonist. After decades and decades of cinema and literature giving the woman a second lead or in case of romance novels and films, only half the limelight, there is a sudden reversal of roles where a woman takes the spotlight. There is something unusually refreshing about that.
Women, for the first time, have lives beyond the male lead. They have a vibrant professional life, a group of friends and family. The omnipresent cloud of finding Mr. Right is always almost only a part of the plot. In films like Bridesmaids and Legally Blonde, and in TV shows like Two Broke Girls, it is not a major plot point at all. Sadly, the ability to see women as complete human beings, with strong and independent identities, in the journey of self discovery is still a novelty in pop culture. And this very novelty is probably the reason for its popularity and commercial success.
Women, for the first time, have lives beyond the male lead.
In all of the time that I spent sifting through countdown lists, I discovered that the kind of films boxed under the genre is extremely varied. Movies like Sex and the City, Bridget Jones, Clueless and Princess Diaries were countdown staples. But there were some lists that included movies like Erin Brockovich, Bend it like Beckham and The Help. These films are entirely different from what is expected of a chick flick. They dealt with very different socio-economic and political atmospheres.
Many of their lead characters were not necessarily white. It led me to think if this might be a possible response to the expectations from the genre itself. Come to think about it, the genre does deal with women of various age groups from different cultural backgrounds. The themes it takes up also changes as we rummage through an entire barrage of books, films and TV shows. I came across this really unusual list where the author insisted on The Hunger Games being a chick flick.
This leads us to a very important question. Does every story with a woman protagonist get boxed into this genre? And more importantly, do we require a separate genre for telling stories with women at its helm? Does this genre, then, become theme-neutral?
While chick flicks of the 1990s began by telling stories of only certain women; urban, white, usually a journalist or PR professional dealing with very specific problems, I believe that in the last couple of years, the lines between genres have essentially started blurring. While it’s hardly convincing that The Hunger Games can be boxed exclusively under this genre, I do not see why a film or a book cannot be a crossover between genres. And as for conventional descriptions of genres, they seem to be undergoing a reinvention and redefinition.
If we truly believe that women’s choices and aspiration are not homogenous, then expecting homogeneity from chick culture is not an option.
Does every story with a woman protagonist get boxed into this genre?
The issue of boxing all stories with a woman protagonist under this genre still remains and this bring us back to the question of how films and books become ‘woman-centric’ when it has a prominent female character but prominent male characters not end up making the film ‘man-centric’.
The audience consumes stories that have female protagonists is unfortunately still demarcated by a strong gender factor that seems to operate in a binary. While women continue to be consumers of stories that do not have a female lead and these stories do not get cramped under one stifling category, men are yet to appreciate the nuances in women’s stories and tell them apart.
Since the 1990s, chick flicks have merged seamlessly into mainstream popular culture, while talking about relevant and serious issues like infertility, single parenthood, unemployment, racism, body shaming and addiction to name a few.
For a culture that deals with such diversity, the genre continues to be rather marginalized. It has after all created spaces for certain characters to exist, a space that has been denied to them both in literature and screen. The attempts to redefine its boundaries to make it even more inclusive are ongoing. As of now it remains a commercial biggie and the cultural phenomena of the century.