Chick flickology

What can your average guy learn about women by watching movies made for them? Not much

Published February 19, 2010 7:20PM (EST)

"How far would you go to understand the opposite sex?" That's the question that drove 28-year-old Nick Waters' recently completed blog project, in which he "went where very few men have gone before," according to dude Web site Asylum. But just how far is that? I'll tell you: In an effort to understand what makes women tick, this fearless pioneer swallowed his pride, boldly raised a middle finger to decades of masculine conditioning and did the practically unthinkable.

He watched "chick flicks." Thirty of them, in 30 days.

My god, you must be thinking. Is he OK? Yes, Asylum assures us, Waters survived being "bludgeoned with romantic comedies, tearful embraces and estrogen" for an entire month. Whew! Let me tell you, I've heard stories about estrogen bludgeonings, and they are no joke. But with that out of the way, we can move on to the next obvious question: How many of these movies he watched to gain insight into the female psyche were even directed by women? (Well, it was an obvious question to me.)

Answer: About a third. Waters started off strong, with Adrienne Shelley's "Waitress," Phyllida Lloyd's "Mamma Mia!" and Nancy Meyers' "It's Complicated" -- but over the next 27 days, he watched only eight more female-directed films. To learn about women.

Granted, given how few films are directed by women, I can't really blame him for that (and to his credit, Waters named Jane Campion's "Bright Star" his very favorite, and included Drew Barrymore's "Whip It" in his top five). According to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, in 2008, women directed 9 percent of the 250 top-grossing films. In 2007, which is as far back as Waters went looking for chick flicks, that number was 3 percent lower. In light of that, 11 out of 30 is actually pretty good -- until you remember that we're talking about films made for women, that supposedly reflect our experiences and desires. And of course, by "our," I mean "white women's" -- Ruba Nadda ("Cairo Time") and Gina Prince-Bythewood ("The Secret Life of Bees") are the only female directors of color who made it onto Waters' list (which, depressingly, is also not a bad number relative to the options).

And by "white women's," I mean mostly young, conventionally beautiful, underemployed but expensively dressed single straight gals who desperately want to get marri -- eh, you know. You've seen chick flicks. You've read rants about their tropes and their shallowness and their appalling portrayal of female ambition and about how many of them, despite ostensibly being for and about women, still flunk the Bechdel Test. You noticed that Nora Ephron's Valentine's Day list of her 11 favorite romantic comedies included zero from the 21st century and only four recent enough to be in color, three of which were made before 1990 and the other of which is a Jane Austen adaptation. You weren't surprised. It's old news: Once upon a time, before you were born, there were witty, engaging movies about complex female characters. Then one day, it was all Nicholas Sparks adaptations, misanthropic battle-of-the-sexes romps and wedding porn. (And a few actually funny romantic comedies -- about men.)

So I can accept the argument that watching 30 recent chick flicks in 30 days would be a deeply unpleasant test of endurance -- but it would be for anyone, not just a straight guy. (Please note: I say that as someone who loves the romantic comedy genre not only at its best, but several notches down from that.) And as an anthropological experiment, it's more than a little flawed. The idea that movies like "Valentine's Day" and "Made of Honor" and "Nights in Rodanthe" and "Leap Year" and "He's Just Not That Into You" and "The Accidental Husband" accurately represent how women think or what we want -- especially when not one of those was directed by a woman -- is mostly absurd and, to the extent that it's not, tremendously dispiriting. But no matter how many times we try to explain to Hollywood that what women want is some decent movies about -- and by -- women, it just seems to keep getting worse.

There's hope, I suppose, in the fact that a woman finally won the Directors Guild of America Award after only 60 or so years, and the power of female audiences is finally getting some notice, and writers like Sarah Haskins are getting work and blah blah TinaFeyAmyPoehler. But as Women and Hollywood's Melissa Silverstein noted recently, only five of the 50 biggest movies slated for 2010 even have female leads. Two are the "Sex and the City" sequel and the latest "Twilight" installment. One is an animated fairy tale. So all that's really left to say about the current state of chick flicks is summarized by one of Nick Waters' favorite lines from "Bright Star," one of the few well-reviewed, female-directed films he watched in the last month: "Hope and results are different. One doesn't necessarily create the other." Beyond that, Waters would probably be better off forgetting everything he learned.

By Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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