© 10 Things I hate About You (1999)
If you look up the definition of “chick flick” on Google, then it’s defined as follows: “chick flick – Noun, Derogatory – Informal: A film that appeals mainly to young women”. A genre thought of as futile and stereotypical, which allegedly fills women’s heads with the wildest fantasies of romance and makes many a man cringe with the uttermost disgust. Entertainment specifically targeted toward women, let’s say between 10 and 45. I remember when I entered my ‘not-like-other-girls’ phase around the age of fourteen, I grew an extreme aversion for everything that was considered stereotypically girly. Growing up with an older brother, I was exposed to what could typically be considered more masculine hobbies to begin with. I recall always compromising with him when picking out a movie. I’d agree to watch Troy (2003), The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003), or Robin Hood (2010), etc. with him instead of asking if he’d watch a Disney film with me because I knew that he’d never agree. Come to think of it, if we watched animated movies it would either be Mulan (1998), or something more along the lines of Shrek (2001) or Ice Age (2002). Hardly any stereotypically ‘girly’ Disney princesses and more animated male characters so to speak. At a certain point, I think I just grew so accustomed to these types of films and other forms of entertainment that I simply became interested in them myself, and from that moment on I rarely ever picked up a ‘girly’ film or book anymore. And I love all those films to this day; I have fond memories of watching them on vacation. But I can’t help but wonder: why did I refuse to read or watch a genre that was specifically targeted at girls (of which I am one) for the longest time?
I remember when I once mentioned to one of my English teachers in Secondary School that I was interested in English literature, especially in Pride and Prejudice (1813), and he called it a ‘historical chicklit’. Nothing had ever enraged sixteen year old me more than that comment, but then again, if Pride and Prejudice was actually considered a chicklit, would that really be so bad? And what were the implications that come with defining Pride and Prejudice as a chicklit? Why did he find it important to state that?
For as long as I’ve been reading, I’ve never settled on one specific genre and stuck with it. The themes that I’m most interested in change with time. As I get older, different narratives, perspectives, characters and their backgrounds change drastically. I have always been interested in checking out what my peers are interested in, if not actively admitting to it, I’d still do some research about it. For instance, at the height of its popularity, the teen dystopia genre was something that I was interested in. In all honesty, back then I didn’t see characters such as Katniss in The Hunger Games franchise and Tris in The Divergent franchise as suffering from the not-like-other-girls-trope. They felt like a breath of fresh air even. When all that I knew growing up were the oversaturated chick flicks of the early 2000s—and I love Mean Girls (2004), but if you’re not aware of what the films’ core values are meant to represent as a pre-teen then the representation of girlhood in it can come across as extremely repulsive. I was happy when the genre somewhat shifted and I saw girls presented as strong and vital for the survival of the world. Not at all realising that both Tris and Katniss thus represent a not-like-other-girls type of girl; they’re still seen as one of a kind. By representing characters such as them as ‘chosen ones’ the implication that they are one of a kind women is reinforced. The fact that teenage girls loved these two fictional characters so much was because they were female characters like no others. A good thing about these franchises I’d argue is that competition over men between women is fairly absent, or is at least not the focal point that drives the plot forward. Yet it still clings to the idea of uniqueness and singularity, actively going against a more inclusive image of girlhood. Both Katniss and Tris become almost robotic in their ways of navigating the world. They’re so overwhelmed with having to save the world that they incorporate any type of trauma that they overcome as fuel to their extreme sense of revenge and vindication. By focusing on acquiring what would be considered more ‘masculine’ traits, such as physical strength and emotional control, they were stripped from their emotional intelligence, and became less relatable.
As I’m now in my twenties and the people around me are living with the same existential dread in the middle of this global pandemic, it’s no shock to find out that we gravitate toward a more existential genre. Up and coming in literature is the New Adult genre that often discusses tumultuous relationships, self-identity and the uncertainties of the world because of money issues in the lives of twenty-something-year-olds that are trying to navigate the grown-up world. Coming of age fiction at its finest and most relatable. What bothers me in the New Adult genre that contains popular works of fiction like Normal People (2018) by Sally Rooney and Exciting Times (2020) by Naoise Dolan, is that the characters seem to be in a battle with their femininity all the time. I recognise a lot of patterns in these characters in myself. However, these books often written by female authors, usually with a female audience in mind, frequently have a protagonist that looks down on other women, and what are typically associated to be feminine interests simply to differentiate themselves from other women. The existential crises that the protagonists go through in this genre are understandable and so are the insecurities that go paired with that. However, these female protagonists often do it either through slut-shaming, belittling, or even ridiculing other women for the sake of appealing more to the male gaze themselves. If you read between the lines it is made clear through context that these protagonists are insecure and think they are not desirable enough, thus trying to find confidence in bringing others down. It is still problematic to assume that the audience is going to interpret it this way if it’s not explicitly stated. With the target audience of the genre being women either in their late teens, entering their early twenties, or on the verge of hitting their thirties; what message is given if these are the characters they are expected to compare themselves with and relate to? Although it can be confronting, it’s no problem if you recognise yourself in characters such as these. If through reading about these characters you become aware of similar flaws and insecurities that you might possess and how you affect others in your dealing with these flaws, then this genre of fiction can actually be helpful in navigating these feelings. However, if you feel like you can relate and find comfortability in those flaws, then that would serve as proof that the genre is only reinforcing such issues. I plead for bringing in a little perspective. You need to be aware that these characters might seem fun and relatable, and you might empathise with them; however, you should also point out the flaws in them and not put them on a pedestal. Recognise the behaviour in yourself and actively work on bettering that behaviour.
Additionally, I’ve recently been binging every 2000s chick-flick that is recommended to me by my Netflix algorithm, if I happen to be by myself in my room with nothing to do on a Saturday night. The movies I never watched when I was younger but of which I knew almost every title. Among the list of the popular movies belonging to this genre, you’ll find blockbusters such as 10 Things I hate about you (1999), He’s just not that into You (2009), Failure to Launch (2006), How to lose a guy in 10 Days (2003), Notting Hill (1999), 13 going on 30 (2004), and She’s All That (1999). The list is endless and I’ve got more fun Saturdays planned ahead of me. Of course, there are many characters in these films that I don’t like. Take Kat in 10 Things I hate about You for instance. If there has ever been a character that suffered from not-like-other-girls-syndrome, it’s her. She’s constantly going on about how she likes to do things other than shopping, actually cares about intellectual stuff compared to other girls, and most importantly would rather die than go to the school dance. It’s implied that she’s not just another airhead and many girls will have related to her because she was a fresh presentation of femininity that hadn’t been seen too often yet in mainstream media; girls not being interested in stereotypically ‘girly’ things. Similarly, in 13 Going on 30, the main character Jenna is an outcast who has a boy-best friend. She’s clearly presented as not fitting in with the more popular ‘girly’ girls. The film ends with her choosing to give up on her dream to become popular in favour of ending up with the man she likes. Her uniqueness and the reason that a man chooses to be with her is that she’s the ‘quirky girl’ and isn’t just another mean airhead. In both examples, the girls are representing the idea that their ‘uniqueness’ is a tool to measure their worth and a means of receiving male validation. Feminity is stereotyped and those stereotypes are demonised. Ultimately this leads to the same issues that are prevalent in the New Adult genre in fiction; female characters continuously pitting themselves against each other in order to gain the favour of men. It might be more typical for early 2000s movies to encourage this message but it has certainly not left mainstream media yet. Rom Coms that came out in more recent years still suffer from the same tropes, even if they seem less obvious and are less explicitly stated. It can be extremely damaging to be carrying out this message in a genre that is so catered to be relatable for its targeted audience.
Regardless, there were also moments that I audibly laughed at in these films. Some of the stereotyping can even be funny when the female characters are aware of and play into them. For example in How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days, Andie decides to exaggerate the performance expectations of femininity and drives up the hysteria in an effort to make Benjamin be repulsed by her. This leads to some really awkwardly funny scenes and situations that you wish you could turn away from, but it’s simply too cleverly written. I think it’s hardly a crime to agree that some producers and marketers have done their jobs well. Perhaps it’s just the implications I had of the genre myself, and the assumptions that came with liking such a genre.
Nevertheless, I’ll offer an alternative. Sex and the City (1999-2003) was a more sexually liberated version of a Rom Com and thus was more widely accepted to be liked. The four characters, though overflown with stereotypes and typical feminine performances, were presented as multidimensional and edgy to the core. Making it understandable to be referred to as ‘such a Carrie’ or ‘such a Charlotte’ in real life. The characters had typical traits that set them apart from each other but they still were considered three-dimensional characters. For instance, Samantha is the sexually liberated woman, Charlotte the more conservative one, and Miranda the career-oriënted woman. Their unique traits set them apart from each other but didn’t turn them into caricatures, thus the series was able to show that femininity came in different forms. In typical Rom Coms, this was a one of a kind thing. Yet Sex and the City is still dismissed simply for being a chick flick. Although, clearly, chick flicks can also show the value of femininity. Legally Blonde (2001), for instance, also shows how Elle Woods, a very stereotypically ‘feminine’ presenting woman, can still be extremely intelligent, especially when she stops thinking of her femininity as only existing for the male gaze. Thus, stereotypical femininity in chick flicks can also show how it is important for girls to realise that being feminine and having feminine interests is alright.
The critique that chick flicks and chick lits are futile and bad works of fiction simply because they cater to women doesn’t hold up. Women have a wider range of interests than is often portrayed in these genres, but that shouldn’t weigh too heavily. Having hobbies that do fit into a more ‘stereotypical’ feminine performance shouldn’t be seen as something negative or be ridiculed. Considering there are about eight billion people living on Earth of which approximately half are female, it’s okay to admit that we might not be too different from each other, and we’re all just like any other girl.
Written by Marijne Ottenheym