Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Taxonomy of the Chick Flick

My lovely wife of almost 28 years, Debbie, likes a good chick flick once in a while, so it is inevitable that I am irritated once in a while. I guess she thinks there's more to life than gangster movies and Steelers highlights.

But the term "chick flick" is seldom qualified or quantified for us. Can the rules of chick-flickdom be codified? What follows here is my best attempt; I'm sure a more perceptive film critic could do a better job, and please feel welcome to add your own codicils in the "Comments".

1. Chick flicks feature actresses who are not too beautiful. I call it the "Meg Ryan" rule: any actress more beautiful than Meg Ryan can't make a living in chick flicks. Needless to say, Catherine Zeta-Jones would go broke if she had to act in chick flicks. Hit the bricks, Nicole Kidman, that porcelain skin and those long shapely legs won't do you any good here. Go make some more vampire movies, Kate Beckinsale. Cute is good. Pretty is okay. Beauty is not. Sandra Bullock, not Charlize Theron. Kyra Sedgwick, not Scarlett Johansson. And for you old-timers, Audrey Hepburn, not Sophia Loren. Chick-flick heroines must be "girl-pretty", a term coined by a buddy of mine. A woman is "girl-pretty" if girls think guys ought to find her attractive, but don't. It's easy to determine which girls are girl-pretty. If a woman were to catch her husband checking out pictures of Reese Witherspoon online, which is highly unlikely, she would compliment him for having good taste. However, if instead she were to catch him sneaking peeks at Jayne Mansfield's considerable decolletage, he'd get a lecture on the destructive effects of Internet porn. Reese Witherspoon is girl-pretty; Jayne Mansfield would have starved before landing any part in a Nora Ephron screenplay aside from evil villainess/bimbo. And the director would make certain to cover her chest.

2. Chick-flick heroines have usually been done wrong by a man. Divorced. Abandoned. Husband. Lover. Lecherous boss. Drooling teacher or professor. Mistreated. Or worse, underestimated. In "Legally Blonde", all bases are sufficiently covered by having an ex-lover *and* a professor/boss mistreat *and* underestimate the virtuous heroine.

3. Chick-flick heroines attract losers, but are not attracted by losers. However, sometimes the loser successfully conceals his losing qualities until the denouement. The scene where she tells off the loser is usually the second most important scene in the movie.

4. The chick-flick heroine is the smartest person onscreen and can usually see everything more clearly than any other character, except her own love life. Until she figures it all out. Figuring it out is nine-tenths of the plot.

5. Often the intelligence comes across as withering sarcasm, and only the virtuous male romantic lead is able to withstand it all stoically and with good cheer -- up until the scene where, against all odds, or reason, or good sense, he confesses he's fallen head over heels for the castrating termagant. Some chick-flick film makers like to propagate the myth that the bitchier the woman, the more virtuous and desirable the man she ultimately captivates. "You've Got Mail" and "Kate and Leopold" are chick flicks cast in this particular mold. A man would have to be out of his mind to be attracted to the protagonist feminist-castrator characters portrayed in these movies (played to perfection by Meg Ryan in her post-cute phase), but this sub-genre of chick flicks attempts to sustain faith in the existence of the hypothetical man who finds bitchiness irresistibly sexy. And why not? Somebody has to keep hope alive for the millions of women in Georgetown and San Francisco who imagine that they're just one apoplectic snit away from finding Mr. Right.

6. She's a brave woman facing the challenges of life on her own terms, and overcoming them on her own terms. She's almost always a professional of some sort -- usually a journalist or publisher or editor, or some other brainy profession that isn't too wonkish or geeky. If she is a techie geek, however, of course she's better at it than all her beta- and gamma-male geek eunuch buddies, who unanimously acknowledge her as "the best", even though it's effortless for her, whereas they've sacrificed everything -- social skills, relationships, a life -- to get where they've gotten.

7. The trappings of royalty never hurt. "The Princess Diaries" movies have proven that. Talk about effortless virtue.

8. It's great if the chick-flick heroine ends up marrying the rich guy (even better if he's royalty, too, but rich is usually good enough) -- but it's for love, of course. Everyone knows rich guys (and princes) are, in our egalitarian world, no more desirable than a sanitation worker -- but why take any chances? And be he a prince or rich businessman or idealistic lawyer, it's only after he acknowledges how puny he is compared to her, and how empty his life would be without her, that he wins the fair but choosy maiden. That's the first most important scene in a chick flick.

In my opinion, and for what it's worth, the best chick flick ever made was "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" -- but it broke most of the rules listed above. Except for rule 1.


Anonymous said...

Your post gave me a good laugh Lee.
I must admit to watching many so called chick flicks with my good lady over the years but that was mainly so I could drool over Meg Ryan who was my favourite actress of the late 80's and early 90's.
I know it's a matter of taste but in regard to your rule number one Michelle Pfeiffer is the ONLY actress I can think of who might have been more beautiful than Meg Ryan in her heyday and even then I'd have had a hard time choosing between them !
Once again thanks for an enjoyable post.

Lee said...

Thanks for stopping by, Paul, and for your expression of appreciation.

Sorry, but I don't see Meg Ryan as beautiful. She was certainly very cute and quite appealing in her heyday, and she had a nice touch with comedy. I do find her more appealing than Michelle Pfeiffer, but MP is (to me, anyway) far more beautiful.

I see "beautiful", "pretty", "cute", "sexy" all as separate attributes. Some women combine them all, or in parts. It would be hard to define, but, as one Supreme Court justice said about pornography, "I know it when I see it." To my mind, Sela Ward was the most beautiful actress of that era and also had an extra scoop of "sexy" to go along with the beauty. But she's not cute in the sense that Meg Ryan was, and it just doesn't do Ward justice to call her "pretty".

Ward was too beautiful to make a living in chick flicks, so she was relegated mainly to bit parts, bit movies, or TV. My theory is that beauty in sufficient quantities is intimidating, both to men and to women. Even if the men can get past the intimidation, women can't and won't. And women are the primary market for chick flicks. Sela Ward's was too Olympian; needed to be a little overweight, or something, and she could have joined Delta Burke as a made-for-TV chick-flick queen.

Anonymous said...

Reformed Trombonist,

Are you saying Sela Ward was too beautiful to play more than bit roles in movies in general or just in Chick Flicks?

What would explain Angelina Jolie's success?


Lee said...

I'm saying that Sela Ward's beauty in this one respect limited her options. I don't know why she never busted out of the B-list of actresses and became a mega-star. She's in her fifties now, and major stardom somehow eluded her. Who knows why? But there is one option available to many actresses who fall short of the big leagues, and that's the made-for-TV chick flick -- the kind that infest Lifetime and Hallmark channels. But I think she was way too beautiful to make that work.

I'm not qualified to judge what makes Angelina Jolie so successful. Whatever sexual appeal she has is completely lost on me. I seem to be in the minority on that judgment. But I don't see a lot of chick flicks on her curriculum vita. Perhaps she's too beautiful for chick flicks, too, but doesn't need them.

Rick said...

Hey Lee - I just discovered the Reformed Trombonist. As a long-time percussionist involved in a myriad of bands (big and concert), orchestras (pit and symphony), and other ensembles nearly all of which have a brass section of sorts, I've never known a reformed trombonist! I applaud your efforts to reform and re-join the human race, or at least the legion of musicians.
Great Blog! So far I've only gotten back to mid 2009, but it's all interesting, and I have lots of questions. Keep it up!
One question at this time, is the Michael Powell to whom you refer the one who went to PSU?

Lee said...


It seems like a long shot that you would *not* be the Rick H---er I knew at Penn State, but... there may be lots of Ricks who play percussion and knows Mike Powell from PSU! So I will hedge my bets here just a little...

Welcome to the blog!

Rick said...

Well Lee, too bad you didn't bet the farm or at least the backyard and carport on the long shot. You would have easily doubled the size of your lot AND gained a garage! Yep - I'm the one in the same with less hair.

Lee said...

Hope things are going well in Happy Valley, Rick!

I heard Smitty retired. Any truth to that rumor?

I go to the Eastern Trombone Workshop every March up in Arlington, VA. Have gotten to know Mark Lusk, the trombone perfesser up there, a bit. Sure wish I'd had him to study with back in my day! Another PSU trombone alum, Jay Larkin, usually rides up with me. I was long gone by the time Jay got to PSU, but I met him here in Virginia Beach when I moved here back in '99.

We're buds on FB, right? I'll follow up on our off-topic discussion there.

Anonymous said...

I'm doubtless gonna be sorry I asked, but what's your beef with LIBERALS?

Lee said...

How much time do you have?