The Dawn Chorus

Fresh Australian Feminism

Are Chick Flicks Doomed, Or “Why Can’t Reese Witherspoon Get First Billing?”

Posted by Clem Bastow on September 12, 2008

That’s the question asked by Defamer Hollywood this morning (disclosure: I write for the Australian equivalent) in a ‘think piece’ that raises more than a few questions about the sexual politics of billing on movie posters. Oscar-winner Witherspoon is starring with Vince Vaughan (who, Defamer notes, is no guaranteed box office drawcard, with his previous serve of Seasonal fare, Fred Claus, failing to make more in its opening weekend than his $20m fee) in Four Christmases, and is billed second:

Is it simply that studios are too terrified to give a woman first billing over a male star, lest people then think the film to be a chick flick? After all, Vaughn’s last hit was The Break-Up, the rare romantic comedy with strong male appeal, something that marketing folks might have felt was in jeopardy had costar Jennifer Aniston been first-billed. Four Christmases isn’t a romcom but a flat-out comedy, but would it be perceived as the former if Vaughn was subservient to Witherspoon in the billing block?

[…] Still, we wonder just how B- and C-list you’d have to go to find a male costar whom the studio would allow Witherspoon to supplant. In an alternate Four Christmases, could the actress vault over Colin Farrell to claim first billing? Or will she have to settle for a part opposite Freddie Prinze Jr. to claim what, by rights, should be hers?

Back in the mid-’90s one would never have thought that pandering to the chick flick market could spell commercial death, but with female moviegoers flocking to action flicks in record numbers and big-name “women’s pictures” like the remake of The Women (which, as Defamer also notes today, is getting a critical drubbing across the board), average female film fans have wised up to the studio machine’s idea of what women want to watch. As Premiere says:

Watching the high profile unveiling of The Women taking over billboards and window displays all over N.Y.C., it’s hard not to be reminded of the fanfare surrounding John McCain’s introduction of Sarah Palin as his pick for VP. Both are strategic attempts to court the coveted adult female demographic. Both claim to be exactly what the ladies of America have been waiting for. And both miss the mark entirely.

But is it any wonder that women are deserting the chick flick in droves? It doesn’t take a Village Gold Pass to see that movies that were once genuinely moving and funny, like Steel Magnolias, have been manhandled into simpering travesties featuring a well-worn cast of stereotypes, stunt casting, and cliched plot points you could set your watch to. James Wolcott’s brilliant piece, The Right Fluff, for Vanity Fair‘s most recent Hollywood Issue, brilliantly skewered and summed up the cavalcade of predictability in chick flick land:

Along with the dog breeder and frisky cougar mentioned above, other stereotypes fill out the playing deck of the chick flick: the Gay Confidant (the role Rupert Everett will carry into Valhalla), the Oprah-esque Font of Soulful Wisdom (paging Queen Latifah), the Dependable Good Guy (sleepyhead Mark Ruffalo), the Kind but Slightly Vague Father Figure Who Helps Unload Stuff out of the Car, the Old Person on the Park Bench Who Gets Off a Wry One-Liner after the couple walks out of frame, the Boyfriend’s Poker-Playing Buddies (farting and wisecracking behind a small forest of beer bottles), and the Snooty Salesperson Left Holding the Atomizer After a Withering Retort. And let’s not neglect the standbys of the lesbian-inflected chick flick—Kissing Jessica Stein, Puccini for Beginners, Imagine Me & You, Gray Matters—where there’s nearly always a Clueless Dude who doesn’t understand why he isn’t making headway and a Lewd Dude who does understand and proposes a threesome with him in the middle (a man sandwich).

Like many of my peers, I’m sure, I have always bristled at the idea of chick flicks; like “women’s music” and “chick lit” and that pathetic “Porn For Women” book with pictures of men doing the washing up while saying “Do you want some more ice cream, darling?”, the genre pretends to know exactly what women want but instead (with few exceptions) insults our intelligence, sexual desire and sense of humour (or lack thereof). They reduce women’s experience to little more than a hilarious montage of dress-trying-on and a make-out scene in the rain. The concept also marginalises women’s filmic landscape, cementing years of pointless gender division and allowing men to shake their heads and say, “The missus has rented a chick flick, I better get down to the pub in time for the big game!”

But the Reese Witherspoon billing dilemma – which, as noted, possibly hinges on the danger of audiences (both male and female) thinking Four Christmases is a chick flick, and not seeing it – poses yet more questions: if audiences will only pay to see a “male friendly” romantic comedy (The Break-Up, Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall), then is the death of the chick flick actually a bad thing? If you see chick flicks as a sort of affirmative action policy in the notoriously sexist world of moviemaking, does it mean there will be even fewer starring (indeed, “first billing”) roles for female actors? In other words, if Reese Witherspoon can’t even get first billing in a chick flick, what hope does she have in any other genre?

I’d be very interested to hear your views on all this: do you watch “chick flicks”? What’s your favourite “women’s picture”? How do you feel about the way Hollywood markets films to you based on your gender?


4 Responses to “Are Chick Flicks Doomed, Or “Why Can’t Reese Witherspoon Get First Billing?””

  1. Mel Campbell said

    I LOVE chick flicks and I also LOVE MARK RUFFALO. (I have previously blogged about what I dub the Mark Ruffalo Effect – and about its female equivalent, the Janeane Garofalo Effect.) Although there is a new and shameful addition to my rom-com crush pantheon – Colin Hanks, Son of Tom.

    What appeals to me about chick flicks is the sense of identifying with a character who may perhaps be flawed or unlikable, but is wronged by other characters in the film’s world and the audience knows he or she is an essentially good person. I think this trope goes across various genres, like romcom, rom-dram, music/dance ‘journey’ films, etc. Unsuccessful chick flicks present a one-dimensional central character that audiences can’t be bothered barracking for, or a scenario in which we don’t much care how it turns out.

    Also, many chick flicks have really problematic gender politics, but I enjoy watching them for the emotional ‘journey’, even though I realise they’re deliberately emotionally manipulative.

  2. Clem Bastow said

    Yes, and I think what’s worrying about the apparent “death” of the chick flick is that at the very least they provide roles for women that have depth and emotional range – hell, just leading roles for women, full stop!

    Have you seen 27 Dresses? It was flawed, but I was quite taken by how close they managed to push Heigl’s character into “OMG totally unlikable” territory, before bringing her back again (though in a believable way), which I thought was quite impressive. You don’t see those sorts of character arcs in the “hot sidekick” or “wise-talking boss” roles outside of the chick flick/romcom realm.

  3. Altissima said

    The poster I’ve seen gives equal billing to Witherspoon and Vaughan . By convention, when stars are given equal billing the names are written alphabetically, so reading left to right, Vaughan’s comes first, but both get top billing. I don’t think alphabetical can be equated with sexist.
    The IMDB listing for the film gives Witherspoon top billing. It would be interesting to now how the names are listed in the film itself.
    poster here:
    cast list here:

  4. audrey said

    Slightly off topic, but one of the interesting things that struck me about Sigourney Weaver in the 80s was how she was universally celebrated as Ripley (and deservedly so) for being a bad ass mamma jamma, succeeding in a man’s world where other men had failed and generally being not particularly ‘womanly’ while doing so – yet in a flipped scenario, written as the villain and maligned for pretty much exhibiting similar (although by no means exactly the same) qualities as the boss in Working Girl.

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