In this essay, we consider chick flicks, a subject that inspires
highly polarized and ambivalent responses. Chick flicks have been both
championed and vilified by women and men, scholars and popular
audiences. Like other forms of "chick culture," chick flicks
have been accused of reinscribing traditional attitudes and reactionary
roles for women. On the other hand, they have been embraced as
pleasurable and potentially liberating entertainments, assisting women
in negotiating the challenges of contemporary life.
We contend that the most valuable and productive consideration of
chick flicks requires looking at them neither in isolation nor as simply
one area of film studies. Rather, chick flicks are best addressed as one
form of a prominent popular cultural phenomenon that can be termed chick
culture. This essay seeks to examine the polarized responses and the
range of positions in between, not advocating a single position but
seeking to complicate and explore the questions chick forms, especially
films, inevitably raise.
While we hesitate to pin it down to a single, possibly reductive
definition, chick culture can be productively viewed as a group of
mostly American and British popular culture media forms focused
primarily on twenty- to thirtysomething middle-class women. Along with
chick flicks, the most prominent chick cultural forms are chick lit and
chick TV programming, although other pop culture manifestations such as
magazines, blogs, music--even car designs--can be included in the chick
line-up. The dawn of chick lit, the wildly popular body of literature
largely spawned by British author Helen Fielding's 1996 novel
Bridget Jones's Diary, provides a fairly clear starting point for
the chick cultural explosion. (1) The TV series Sex and the City, based
on the book by Candace Bushnell, appearing at the same time, provides
another clue to its origins. As a phenomenon dating from the
mid-'90s, the chick culture boom both reflected and promoted the
new visibility of women in popular culture. What links the products of
chick culture is, above all, "the contemporary media's
heightened address to women" (Ashby). This deliberate address to
female audiences suggested a growing recognition of women's
significance in contemporary culture. The media reflected and even
shaped women's complex social positioning--with its continued
restrictions and its new freedoms--and their aspirations. At the same
time, however, the rise of chick culture provided evidence of newly
concerted efforts to manipulate and influence the spending habits of
young women, whom marketers had at last identified as a huge force in an
economy based on consumption.
The moniker chick flick dates back considerably further than the
mid-'90s. Although impossible to trace definitively, its original
use was surely as a derisive term--most commonly applied by unwilling
male theatergoers to their girlfriends' film choices. One problem
in any consideration of such films is that unlike chick lit which has a
precise historical meaning, (2) chick flick has yet to be clearly
defined--even though Merriam-Webster has at last included it in the
eminent dictionary's most recent update. Once we move beyond the,
perhaps original, derogatory meaning--a sappy movie for women that men
don't like--which films are we referring to? What, precisely, is a
chick flick? We might be tempted to answer that we know one when we see
one. But it is helpful to make some effort at definition. In the
simplest, broadest sense, chick flicks are commercial films that appeal
to a female audience. Although we are focusing in this discussion on
contemporary films, chick flicks can also be seen as a much more
inclusive film category. We do not want to suggest that films from other
periods cannot be included as chick flicks.
We are most interested, however, in how contemporary movies
designated as chick flicks are enmeshed, for good and for in, with the
wide range of responses invoked by chick culture. The term chick
itself--whether applied to film, literature, or other popular culture
forms--invites immediate and conflicting reactions. The term and
reactions to it point up some of the larger issues involved in responses
to chick culture. (3)
At the height of the women's liberation movement in the 1970s,
the word chick, along with the word girl, was considered an insult, a
demeaning diminutive, casting women as childlike, delicate, fluffy
creatures in need of protection and guidance or as appendages to hip
young males. Rejecting such terms was a declaration of equality and
independence. To the feminists harking from this period--those now known
as second-wave feminists--the contemporary revival of these terms
signals a return to the infantilizing of women and a failure of their
efforts to create a society based on gender equality. For many
second-wave feminists, the term invokes an immediate negative response.
For women of a younger generation, however, the word chick, like
girl (and even bitch), has been wielded knowingly to convey solidarity
and signal empowerment. This new generation made up of women who were
born with feminism as their heritage--often referred to as a third-wave
feminist or postfeminist generation--has rejected or at least questioned
some of the central tenets of feminist thought. Part of third
wavers' response to feminism has been the deliberate
re-appropriation and revisioning of terms that make second-wave
feminists cringe: Girlpower. "You go, girl." "Chicks
rule!" Much as homosexual activists transformed the disparaging
term queer into a slogan to proclaim solidarity and increase their
cultural visibility--"We're here. We're queer. Get used
to it"--so the women of the third wave seek to reclaim and
refashion their identity through terms considered unacceptable by the
Above all, as the term chick suggests, chick culture is vitally
linked to postfeminism. The split between feminism and postfeminism has
largely been viewed as a generational one. (4) That isn't an
entirely valid distinction: certainly many women in their twenties and
thirties consider themselves feminists while plenty of women over forty
indulge in supposedly postfeminist interests and pursuits such as
fashion. It's also possible--and perhaps more helpful--to see
feminism and postfeminism in terms of a continuity rather than a
conflict. While many definitions of postfeminism have been advanced and
many types identified, the most pervasive form--which has appropriately
been labeled "chick" postfeminism--is the one most relevant to
the study of chick culture. (5)
The ideas associated with postfeminism--and the presumed conflict
between feminism and postfeminism--are central to any consideration of
chick flicks, which can be viewed as the prime postfeminist media texts.
(6) At the risk of indulging in reductionism or oversimplification, we
do think it's useful to note some of the major
* Reliance on political action, political movements, and political
* The primacy of equality; resistance to and critique of the
* Choice is collective--it refers to women's right not to have
children and to enter careers and professions formerly closed to them;
* A rejection--or at least questioning--of femininity;
* Suspicion of and resistance to media-driven popular culture and
the consumerism it supports;
* Humor is based on the disjunction between traditional
women's roles and women as powerful, independent people.
* The personal as political; agenda is replaced by attitude;
* A rejection of second-wave anger and blame against the
* Choice is individual--whether of family, career, cosmetic
surgery, or nail color;
* A return to femininity and sexuality;
* Pleasure in media-driven popular culture and an embracing of the
joys of consumerism;
* Humor is based on the discrepancy between the ideals put forward
by both feminism and the media, and the reality of life in the modern
world; as such, the humor of postfeminism is often ironically
Not surprisingly, then, postfeminists might tend to view feminists
as angry, humorless, self-proclaimed victims of patriarchy. Feminists
might tend to view postfeminists as shallow, mindless, unconscious
victims of media culture and consumerism. (7) Unquestionably film plays
a significant role in framing and reflecting women's place in
culture, particularly during moments of cultural shift. It is not
surprising then that chick flicks raise questions about women's
place--their prescribed social and sexual roles, the role of female
friendship and camaraderie--and play out the difficulties of negotiating
expectations and achieving independence. They do so, however, in complex
and often contradictory ways. Chick flicks illustrate, reflect, and
present all of the cultural characteristics associated with the chick
postfeminist aesthetic: a return to femininity, the primacy of romantic
attachments, girlpower, a focus on female pleasure and pleasures, and
the value of consumer culture and girlie goods, including designer
clothes, expensive and impractical footwear, and trendy accessories.
As a result, chick flicks are often accused of promoting a retreat
into pre-feminist concerns and the unthinking embrace of consumerism, of
endorsing not true freedom but "the freedom to shop (and to
cook)" (Holmlund) through protagonists "whose preoccupations
are likely to involve romance, career choices, and hair gels"
(Mizejewski). The women who identify with postfeminist films, however,
welcome the inclusion of romance and femininity in their lives, and
resist reducing femininity, as many critics do, to superficial markers
such as high heels and frilly dresses. The admission of girliness, they
argue, doesn't mean the loss of female independence and power.
By contrast, defenders of "girlie feminism" view
femininity and sexuality as empowering. Many postfeminists seek to
reclaim and refashion their sexuality, to unsettle traditional images of
feminine virtue by substituting an image of themselves as "lusty
feminists of the third-wave" (Stoller 84). This idea clearly
applies to a number of women's films as well as to the popular TV
series Sex and the City, Bust magazine, female pop singers, and more.
The members of this "New Girl Order," as Bust editor Debbie
Stoller styled the girl power rebellion, defiantly embrace sexuality as
its means: "Our mission is to seek out pleasure wherever we can
find it. In other words, if it feels good, screw it" (79). The
title of Stoller's essay, "Sex and the Thinking Girl,"
obviously plays on Sex and the Single Girl, the title of Helen Gurley
Brown's 1962 bestseller. At once she embraces the message of sexual
liberation first advanced by the creator of Cosmopolitan, and distances
the "new girls" from the old, implying that young women are
consciously seeking pleasure rather than using their bodies as tokens of
exchange with men. (8) In fact, while second-wave feminists Andrea
Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon argued that pornographic films sexually
objectified women, leading directly to sexual harassment, battery and
even rape, some contemporary female erotic filmmakers have sought to
revolutionize porn by representing women's sexual pleasure in
particular. Winner of the first Emma Award for Feminist Porn (named in
honor of feminist Emma Goldman) awarded at the "Vixens and
Visionaries" event in Toronto, Canada, director Tristan Taormino
said, "I consciously work to create images that contradict (and
hopefully challenge) other porn that represents women only as objects
and vehicles for male pleasure." While such films are by no means
mainstream, they have been associated with a more pervasive "raunch
culture"--from "Cardio Striptease" fitness workouts to
Paris Hilton's sex tapes to Girls Gone Wild! to the sexually
provocative music videos of Madonna, Britney Spears, and Christina
Aguilera (Humphrey). Such manifestations can be seen either as allowing
women the freedoms of sexual expression and pleasure previously denied
them or as demeaning women by exploiting them once again as sex objects,
leading them to overvalue appearance and embrace plastic surgery. (9)
Chick flicks do occupy this conflicted territory. While Drew
Barrymore does indeed twirl around a pole in Charlie's Angels: Full
Throttle (2003), she does so in a campy parody of a stripper and, in
both films in the series, the Angels are kept far too busy chasing bad
guys to engage in actual sex. As a sex worker, Julia Roberts in Pretty
Woman (1990) spends more time lounging demurely in a tub than in bed.
Cher (Alicia Silverstone) in Clueless (1995) is "hymenally
challenged"--a virgin. Still, while it may not be overtly
represented, many chick-flick heroines--from Bridget Jones to Legally
Blonde's Elle--clearly do engage in sex outside of marriage and
juggle multiple partners. However, a substantial number of recent chick
flicks, in adhering to older generic conventions of romance and comedy
and responding to a more conservative political climate, have returned
to the subtle promotion of chastity, allowing the heroine only one
sexual partner--or, in some cases--such as Just Like Heaven (2005), The
Family Stone (2005), and She's the Man (2006)--offering the chaste
kiss at the end as the only expression of sexuality.
It is equally important to note that many postfeminist chick flicks
do continue to address issues and take stands originally considered
feminist. To view chick flicks either from an entirely negative or an
entirely positive perspective would be to oversimplify both the films
and the issues involved. We agree with Joanne Hollows and Rachel Moseley
that "we need new ways of understanding the relationship between
feminism and the popular" and "that such an approach need not
imply that post-feminism is either a good or a bad thing" (8-9).
Indeed recent films identified as chick flicks can be drawn on to
provide clear examples of the claims of both attackers and defenders. On
the one hand, some films do reinforce traditional gender roles,
promoting a kind of ideological retrenchment similar to that promoted by
many films of the late '40s and early '50s. As women returned
to the home from the more challenging venues of wartime activities,
Hollywood pointed them in the direction of the suburbs. Films like
Miracle on 34th Street (1947) and Funny Face (1957) ridiculed or
undercut women's efforts at intellectual and professional
accomplishment. Similarly, some chick flicks from the '90s and
2000s promote the choice of romance, family, and love over career and
independence. Such films as Kate and Leopold (2001), 13 Going on 30
(2004), Raising Helen (2004), and The Family Stone suggest that a
career-oriented woman is a lonely and unhappy one.
On the other hand, just as some '40s and even '50s films
showed women successfully navigating both career and romance, so do many
of today's chick flicks. The idea that women can follow professions
while wearing pink, have both successful careers and successful
relationships--that femininity and feminism aren't mutually
exclusive--appears prominently in both mainstream and independent films
embraced by female viewers. Legally Blonde (2001), Real Women Have
Curves (2002), Bend It Like Beckham (2002), Mona Lisa Smile (2003), The
Devil Wears Prada (2006), and numerous others promote the idea that
while it may not be possible to have it all, choosing education and
career does not mean abandoning the possibility of happiness. (10) Many
of these films also promote the value and benefits of female friendship.
(11) Some contemporary chick flicks do focus on (often vicious)
competition among women--seen most prominently in teen flicks such as
Mean Girls (2004). But today's chick flicks far more often put
forward a view of female solidarity and support. Even Legally
Blonde's Elle, who finds herself clashing with snobbish female
students at Harvard, has the support of her former sorority sisters and
the down-to-earth women at the local beauty salon.
The same diversity of perspectives appears with respect to the
issue of marriage. Even some romantic comedies which, according to
expected conventions, lead necessarily to wedding bells, actually
question the desirability of marriage. The attraction between the
married heroine (Claudette Colbert) and her bachelor rescuer (Clark
Gable) in It Happened One Night (1934) suggests that romance and
marriage are not necessarily linked. Similarly, the '90s chick
flick Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) highlights the relationship
between Charles (Hugh Grant) and Carrie (Andie MacDowell) who finally,
after her failed marriage and his failed wedding, get together but agree
to forgo wedding vows themselves. The primacy of beauty is another issue
that chick flicks can be found simultaneously promoting and questioning.
While the beauty makeover may be a chick-flick staple, a film like The
Truth about Cats & Dogs (1996) is able to explore and finally reject
the standard ideals of beauty while remaining solidly in chick-flick
Still other films complicate the issues even further, taking an
ambivalent position. Such films as Bridget Jones's Diary (2001),
The Princess Diaries (2001), and In Her Shoes (2005) raise questions
about the choices women confront, the possibility of having it all, and
the effects of society's rigorous and capricious standards of
beauty. Others combine pre-feminist and feminist ideas, refusing to
choose between them. The 2005 film Just Like Heaven provides the ideal
example of a postfeminist fairy tale. In this modern take on Sleeping
Beauty, the film's protagonist lies in an accident-induced coma. As
in the original pre-feminist tale, she will be awakened by a kiss. In
both cases, the heroine will experience a sexual/ spiritual awakening as
well as a physical one. But in the postfeminist version, our sleeping
heroine (played by Reese Witherspoon) will not simply lie around waiting
for her prince to come. Rather, her spirit detaches itself and goes out
to find him--and she must "wake" him so that he can appear
just in time to wake her. As the movie's prince (played by Mark
Ruffalo) pointedly claims, "when we first met, I kept saying that
you were dead. But it was me that was dead, and you brought me back. You
saved me. And now it's my turn to save you." At the
film's end, Reese Witherspoon's character has found her prince
but lost her chance to be an attending physician at the hospital where
she obsessively worked before her accident. The film doesn't let us
know whether her future will return her to a (perhaps more balanced)
professional role--individual viewers are left to make that decision for
THE OTHER CHICK: RACE, SEXUALITY, AGE, CLASS
A charge frequently leveled against chick culture and chick flicks
relates to their homogeneity. Feminist film scholars, in fact,
frequently discuss chick flicks as part of "a white
'chick' backlash that denies class, avoids race, ignores
(older) age, and 'straight'-jackets sexuality"
(Holmlund). The nature of chick flicks' appeal and their potential
value in illuminating women's lives are controversial issues partly
because such films have featured protagonists who are overwhelmingly
young, heterosexual, white, and middle-class. To at least some extent,
this may be an issue of definition. Frequently the designation of chick
flick has, for example, been automatically avoided in the case of films
focused on women of color. Even such films as The Color Purple (1985)
that clearly exhibit many of the most obvious characteristics and
conventions of chick flicks are rarely included. This may not be
surprising. Krin Gabbard points out that many recent scholars in black
media studies, while giving black performers credit for strides made in
the film industry, are, nonetheless, "just as concerned with how
the artists are appropriated by white culture"
("Cinema"). To identify films focused on women of color as
chick flicks will strike some viewers and scholars as a move to
delegitimize them or assimilate them into a prevailing white culture.
Still, major elements of chick flicks appear in cinematic offerings
focused on women of color and in films produced in other parts of the
world. Accusing chick flicks of focusing entirely on
"whiteness" risks oversimplifying the issues while ignoring or
dismissing the contributions of other ethnicities. Instead, we should be
asking how African-American, Latina, Asian, and other non-Anglo ethnic
cultures have appropriated and transformed chick-flick conventions while
also noting the features shared across ethnic, racial, and national
lines. Issues of women's identity, sexuality, generational conflict
(particularly between mothers and daughters), and romantic trials are
indeed remarkably similar. Do these similarities reflect a similar
experience for twenty-first-century women across ethnic boundaries? Or
does the form itself--and the politics of production and reception
controlling it--enforce artificial similarities? Could the answer be yes
to both questions? If we simply dismiss chick flicks for failing to
focus on various ethnic groups, we will neglect to ask these questions.
Unquestionably, woman-centered films from a variety of cultures are
gaining mainstream recognition and attention. African-American chick
flicks include, for example, those based on the novels of Terry
McMillan--Waiting to Exhale (1995) and How Stella Got Her Groove Back
(1998)--Love Jones (2004), and Beauty Shop (2005). Girlfight (2000),
Tortilla Soup (2001) (based on the original Chinese Eat, Drink, Man,
Woman ), Maid in Manhattan (2002), and Real Women Have Curves
qualify as Latina chick flicks. (12) Each film conforms to and
significantly transforms what might be seen as prevailing chick
conventions. These films and many others should, we believe, be
considered in the context of chick culture.
Asian, Indian, and Pakistani cultures have also been prominent in
the production of films that can be and have been labeled chick flicks.
Bride and Prejudice (2004), the Bollywood version of Jane Austen's
classic, suggests that the conventions of femininity and romance
characteristic of the chick flick are present in Indian culture, despite
the persistence of arranged marriages. Directed by Gurinder Chadha on
the heels of her wildly successful paean to girlpower, Bend It Like
Beckham, the film, it's worth noting, was intended not for indian
but Anglo-American audiences. We might suspect then that it makes Indian
traditions conform to chick-flick formulas rather than creating a truly
indigenous Indian chick flick that captures the complexity of
women's position in the developing world. Still, the appearance of
chick conventions beyond the borders of the Anglo-American world might
suggest their adaptability to diverse cultures, as Mira Nair's film
Monsoon Wedding (2001) more clearly demonstrates. Several Asian films
including Eat, Drink, Man, Woman and the original Japanese version of
Shall We, Dance? (1996) also give evidence of the widespread appeal of
chick-flick formulas. European filmmakers too, once distinguished by
their reliance on dark, naturalistic themes, now participate in chick
cultural trends, as evidenced by the enormously popular French film
Amelie (2001) and the German/Italian Mostly Martha (2002), among others.
Similar issues arise in considering sexuality in chick flicks.
While Chris Holmlund has contended that the chick flick
"'straight'-jackets sexuality" by foregrounding
heterosexual romance, others have pointed to possibilities for more
complex, even resistant, viewing practices. Patricia White, for example,
has argued that "cinema is a public fantasy that engages
spectators' particular, private scripts of desire and
identification" (xv). While some female viewers may identify with
the attractive chick-flick heroine who is the object of male desire on
screen, others may see her as an object of desire herself. (13) Lesbian
viewers have also seen models of same-sex desire in secondary
characters, as in Mrs. Danver's worshipful devotion to the first
Mrs. De Winter in Alfred Hitchcock's classic Rebecca (1940). (14)
With the growing visibility of sexual minorities, a contemporary
lesbian or "queer chick flick" has arguably emerged. In her
study of lesbian representation in film, Shameem Kabir has identified a
homoerotic subtext in The Color Purple, Fried Green Tomatoes (1991), and
Thelma & Louise (1991). Such films certainly stress female
friendship and solidarity. While they may only portray female bonding
(or homosociality), it is entirely possible that they convey themes of
lesbian desire. (In the case of Fried Green Tomatoes, the original novel
indicates an underlying homoerotic theme far more strongly than the
film, suggesting both its actual presence in the film and the tendency
of mainstream films to suppress such elements.) Other recent films such
as Go Fish (1993), The Watermelon Woman (1996), Better than Chocolate
(1999), Saving Face (2005), and Puccini for Beginners (2006) do address
lesbian relationships openly. (15) These explicitly lesbian films lead
us to ask if the primacy of romance in the narrative offers a true
"queer" alternative to the heterosexual romance or merely
shapes lesbian desire to fit a heterosexual romantic model. Either way,
it is important to note that the boundaries of the chick flick are being
When it comes to the issue of age, woman-centered films have
recently made significant strides in expanding their focus. Indeed a
whole body of "older bird" films has gained prominence. Some
of these--Unconditional Love (2002), Calendar Girls (2003), Mrs.
Henderson Presents (2005)--are independent or British films, intended
for a small, select, non-mainstream audience. Others, however--The
Banger Sisters (2002), Something's Gotta Give (2003), Under the
Tuscan Sun (2003), and Because I Said So (2007)--are big-budget
Hollywood star vehicles. In many of these films, women over forty
discover--or rediscover--their independence, sexuality, or self-worth.
Still, not all critics and viewers are pleased to see such an expansion
of chick formulas. Like the films directed at younger women, many of
these films, while allowing older women to display and explore
sexuality, reinscribe that sexuality safely within the confines of the
In Unconditional Love, for example, Kathy Bates' character is
a fiftysomething housewife whose husband walks out on her at the
film's beginning. With the help of a handsome, much younger man and
her feisty daughter-in-law, she tracks down a killer and finds
self-respect. In the end, she is reunited with her repentant and
reformed husband--on her terms."' In Something's Gotta
Give, Diane Keaton's character has her confidence in her sexual
desirability and desire restored. But, while the film offers the
possibility of an older woman-younger man pairing, it doesn't
follow through on that option. Keaton opts instead for a
commitment-phobic but age-appropriate mate. The film thus manages to
indulge middle-aged women's fantasies while allaying middle-aged
male fears. Still, the supposedly narrow confines of the chick flick
prove to be less narrow than might have been suspected.
Issues of class and consumerism are particularly controversial
ones. The critique of the pursuit of status through purchase--and the
role of women as the main symbols, if not the main suspects--goes back,
of course, to Thorstein Veblen's 1899 Theory of the Leisure Class.
The prevailing critique today suggests that women who, quite literally,
"buy in" to postfeminist consumerist culture are the victims
of a patriarchal order and a capitalistic media-driven system seeking to
suppress and control them. It is certainly true that chick flicks, like
chick culture in general, often uncritically embrace a supposedly
feminine delight in consumer goods. The montage of the heroine joyously
shopping--often as part of a physical and/or class-status makeover--is a
staple of chick flicks including Moonstruck (1987), Pretty Woman, Freaky
Friday, and The Devil Wears Prada.
To assume that women are the unwilling and unknowing victims of
manipulation, however, may be to demean and discredit them--and even to
suggest that they are incapable of making choices for themselves. As
Hollows and Moseley note, "'consumption' in these debates
frequently becomes reduced to the act of purchase and the reproduction
of consumer capitalism, ignoring more extensive understandings of
consumption" (11). Recent studies of film spectatorship and stardom
complicate such readings, as do studies of women's uses of fashion
to shape identity and even undermine gender conventions. The exaggerated
presentation of femininity in Legally Blonde, for instance, is clearly
part of the film's critique of the dumb-blonde stereotype. Elle
(Reese Witherspoon) not only manages to graduate from Harvard law
school, her success turns on her superior knowledge of perms. Obviously
played for laughs, this plot twist does not imply that female viewers
should devote more serious attention to hair care; rather, they take
pleasure in the revelation that Elle's critics are more
over-invested in appearance than she is.
In addition, the relationship between spectatorship and spending
may be less clear than critics suggest. Rather than influencing women to
spend more on consumer goods, such films--along with chicklit
novels--might just as likely satisfy or replace the desire to consume,r
Viewers of chick flicks can spend $10 for a movie ticket to enjoy the
vicarious screen experience of glamour instead of purchasing pricey
Prada outfits or Manolo Blahniks. Chick flicks thus serve as a
relatively guiltless pleasure.
While in the 1930s, Hollywood studios did blatantly attempt to
forge fashion trends by joining forces with fashion houses, offering
inexpensive knock-offs of designer dresses for middle-class consumers,
(18) such tactics are relatively rare in today's chick flicks.
Nonetheless, although the connection of present-day chick flicks to
consumer desire is more complicated, the relationship between chick
flicks and consumer culture cannot be denied. Luxury watch maker Tissot
did prominently feature its "Touch" watches on the wrists of
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie in Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005) and then
featured the stars in print ads and jewelry store window displays.
Chanel conscripted Moulin Rouge! director Baz Luhrmann to create a
television ad for its classic fragrance No. 5 starring Nicole Kidman, a
project then documented in the pages of Vogue. And the beauty supply
chain Sephora launched a campaign based on The Devil Wears
Prada--unimaginatively titled "The Devil Wears Sephora"--quite
obviously trying to capitalize (literally) on the film's setting in
the beauty industry." The effects of such strategies are difficult
to measure. Did these campaigns actually entice film viewers to buy the
products by making glamour appear accessible through purchase? Or, given
the campaigns' obvious emphasis on fantasy--particularly in the
case of Chanel, which presented Kidman as a ball-gowned and bejeweled
starlet--did the ads only reinforce the luxury brands as exclusive and
out of reach of the average consumer/ viewer? Either way the intent to
promote consumerist desire is clear.
Certainly, chick flicks, like other commercial films, are enmeshed
in a complex network created by mega corporations to reach a global
consumer market. (20) The same corporation may produce and distribute
the film featured on the morning programs and late-night talk shows on
the network it owns, and reviewed in the pages of the magazine it
publishes. And chick flicks, in particular, often intersect with other
chick media, such as magazines. Celebrities such as Reese Witherspoon
and Kate Hudson grace the covers of fashion magazines and others have
been hired to advertise products, from Rachel Welch for hair extensions
to Elizabeth Hurley for milk. However, similar strategies are used to
reach male consumers, as well, suggesting that the indictment of popular
women's media as consumerist may not only miss the complexities of
contemporary media culture but unfairly single out female consumers for
THE PLEASURE PRINCIPLE: CHICKS JUST WANNA HAVE FUN
Of course, most viewers of chick flicks never consider the
political ramifications of postfeminism or the subtle subtexts of female
friendship films. For most of the audience, watching chick flicks is a
matter of pleasure. In Chick Flicks: A Movie Lover's Guide to the
Movies Women Love, film critic Jami Bernard claims a chick flick is
"any movie that makes a special connection with a female
audience" (xii). In their almost identically titled Chick Flicks:
Movies Women Love, Jo Berry and Angie Errigo define it as "a film
made specifically to appeal to a female audience" (1). Rather than
perceiving the term chick as a disparaging appellation that marginalizes
women's films, they have instead embraced it to categorize films on
the basis of the pleasure they bring women, emphasizing desire with
their repeated use of the phrase "movies women love."
Until recently, most feminist film critics ignored the pleasures
women have found in film stressing instead that Hollywood films have
marginalized and objectified women, leading them to accept a position as
victim. Molly Haskell claimed that the majority of the so-called
"woman's films" of the 1930s and '40s, often cited
as precursors to chick flicks, presented the female protagonist as a
victim. By identifying with her, the female viewer was led to wallow in
self-pity rather than to rebel against unfairness and inequity. At its
lowest level, she wrote, the woman's film "fills a
masturbatory need, it is soft-core emotional porn for the frustrated
housewife" (155). Like Haskell, Mary Ann Doane argued that the only
pleasures offered by the woman's film were masochistic. She claimed
that the films presented the female protagonist as an object of male
desire, promoting the female audience's identification with her as
passive object, rather than active agent, of desire. Jeanine Basinger
countered that the woman's film operated out of a paradox: "It
both held women in social bondage and released them into a dream of
potency and freedom. It drew women in with images of what was lacking in
their own lives and sent them home reassured that their own lives were
the right thing after all" (6).
More recent writing about the woman's film and its female
audience has challenged such views. Pare Cook notes that such arguments
"imply that the category of the woman's picture exists in
order to dupe female spectators into believing that they are important,
while subtly marginalizing and disempowering them" (229). Instead,
she and others have suggested that cinema offers women (and men) more
complex possibilities for identification. Judith Mayne, for example, has
rejected the idea that spectators are seeking to identify with those
most like them. Instead, "spectators may experience the thrill of
reinventing themselves rather than simply having their social identities
or positions bolstered" (Cook 234). It is unlikely, then, that
chick-flick viewers presume they are or can become Julia Roberts or
Renee Zellweger. In part, they take pleasure in the obvious difference
between themselves and the women on the screen, just as women of earlier
eras gravitated toward the glamour of Hollywood stars, who served as
unreal, transcendent figures of desirability and femininity. In her
study of British women's reactions to Hollywood films of the 1940s
and '50s, Jackie Stacey found that "the cinema [...] was
remembered as offering spectators the chance to be part of another world
and participate in its glamour in contrast to their own lives"
Several recent chick flicks even take an ironic stance on overly
simple theories of identification. Down with Love (2003), for example, a
tongue-incheek homage to the films of Doris Day and Rock Hudson,
consciously distanced itself from contemporary fashion with its retro
'60s art design, and even from contemporary sexual politics, with
its campy send-up of a world of "playboys" and sexy
stewardesses. Instead, viewers were invited to revel in the distance,
credited perhaps with additional knowledge of Hudson's
homosexuality which made any pretense to real romance between the film
couple a joked. (22)
The pleasure women take in chick flicks is not, it should also be
noted, a purely self-centered or solitary one. Like shopping, going to
the movies is often an experience women share, rather than pursue
individually. The chick flick Sleepless in Seattle (1993) emphasizes
this collective nature of the chick-flick cinematic experience. The film
self-reflexively stages a typical chick-flick viewing: Meg Ryan and
Rosie O'Donnell cry together over All Affair to Remember (1957)
while sitting next to each other on a sofa eating popcorn in their
pajamas. (In a companion scene, Rita Wilson tells the plot to her male
dining companions, who dismiss it as a "chick movie" and mock
her own weepy response by claiming to have cried at the end of The Dirty
Dozen.) The shared experience of chick flicks is surely a major
contributor to their appeal.
The principle of pleasure clearly complicates some of the more
censorious views of chick flicks. Reactions are polarized and reflect
more general and entrenched divisions in response to popular culture. On
one side are Marxists including members of the Frankfurt School, such as
Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, who criticized the "culture
industry" for cranking out products for profit and inspiring
passivity rather than resistance to capitalism. On the other are those
such as John Fiske who stress the power of the audience to interpret
media texts and create alternative or resistant readings. We would argue
that positions in between such readings are not only possible but
preferable given the increased complexity of contemporary culture in a
late capitalist society. If chick flicks are influencing female viewers
to accept rather than resist the societal conventions that restrict
them, then surely such films are open to censure. But given the
complexities of spectatorship and psychology found in response to the
woman's film, it is just as likely that chick flicks allow women to
enjoy imaginative possibilities or to indulge in vicarious experience
that assists them in returning to the challenges that face them. In
fact, it's only fair to note that in this heyday of postfeminist
chick flicks, the number and percentage of women attending college,
graduate schools, and professional schools continues to climb. (23)
Women's complex negotiation with film may explain, in part,
the range of films commonly designated as chick flicks. Some, such as
Bridget Jones's Diary, stress the audience's identification
with an ordinary working girl, seeking love and companionship in
contemporary London while sidestepping the intrusions of her family and
relying instead on her friends for support. Others, such as Gone with
the Wind (1939), present female characters far removed from the daily
grind, offering escapist fantasies of fulfillment.
Considering chick flicks as a group emphasizes the fluidity of
generic classification. Chick flicks do not clearly align themselves
with any particular genre. Certainly some contemporary chick flicks can
be traced back to 1930s and '40s woman's films. Although these
films cannot be tied to a single genre themselves, those most often
cited as "classic" woman's films--films such as Dark
Victory (1939), Rebecca, Now, Voyager (1942), and Mildred Pierce
(1945)--are all melodramas. The origins, then, of at least one type of
chick flick may be found here: the melodramatic woman's film may
well be the source of chick-flick "weepies" such as Terms of
Endearment (1983), Beaches (1988), The Hours (2002), and The Notebook
The woman's film cannot, on the other hand, be considered the
source of chickflick romantic comedies, such as Four Weddings and a
Funeral or French Kiss (1995). Seeking the roots of these films, we need
to look to another early film genre, the screwball comedy. Early
romantic comedies such as It Happened One Night and Bringing Up Baby
(1938) although not created for a specifically female audience, did,
like the woman's film, feature a female protagonist. As James
Harvey has noted, the "screwball comedy [...] was a special kind of
woman's game nearly always favoring the heroine to win" (287);
it was the "witty heroine who had the edge" (409). These
classic comedies also focused on the dynamics of heterosexual romance,
treating obstacles and impediments not with sentimentality but as
sources of humor. The prevalence of remarriage storylines allowed
characters, particularly females, to acknowledge sexual experience. (24)
Dialogue in classic remarriage comedies such as His Girl Friday (1940)
and The Philadelphia Story (1940) featured witty banter between the
sexes about sexual desire and performance that, while cloaked in
innuendo, may prefigure the frankness of contemporary chick-flick
comedies from When Harry Met Sally (1989) with its fake female orgasm
scene to How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003), in which Andie (Kate
Hudson) deliberately causes an argument by nicknaming her
boyfriend's member "Princess Sophia."
Even romantic comedy and melodrama together, however, do not
account for the full range of chick flicks, which includes the
gun-toting heroines in Thehna & Louise, the strange mix of
cannibalism and humor in Fried Green Tomatoes, the Cinderella story of
Pretty Woman, the old-world elegance of Pride & Prejudice
(2005)--and possibly the leather-clad futuristic revenge fantasy of Lara
As the popular guides referenced earlier suggest, chick flicks can,
in the broadest sense, be defined as films that give women pleasure. We
would add, as we have above, that they are overtly commercial films
tailored to appeal to a female audience. In our view, it is no shame
that the films are successful and popular--that doesn't necessarily
mean that the women who view them are mindless dupes of the patriarchal
Hollywood machine. Instead, we suggest that they are legitimate
consumers of film, desirous of entertainment that either speaks to them
in ways that they can identify with or that offers them tried and true
fantasies. Rather than mindlessly pining after a dream they've been
fed to keep them down, they are exercising their imaginations and
forging connections, however tenuously, with images of more glamorous
femininity and purer, simpler visions of success and independence. Other
definitions of chick flicks are put forward by other viewers and
scholars. Each, we believe, enriches the discussion in some way. No
single definition is finally possible--nor, we contend, is it necessary.
Whatever position scholars, filmgoers, and others might take, chick
flicks' prominence as a part of contemporary popular culture makes
serious consideration not only worthwhile but essential.
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We would like to thank Myra Mendible and Karen Hollinger for their
insightful comments on earlier drafts of this essay. Mallory Young would
also like to thank Tarleton State University for Organized Research
Grants that supported her work. A version of this essay forms the
Introduction to Chick Flicks: Contemporary Women at the Movies,
co-edited by Ferriss and Young (Routledge, 2008). Our thanks to Matthew
Byrnie at Routledge for permission to publish this essay.
(1) See the Introduction to Ferriss and Young, Chick Lit: The New
Woman's Fiction for information on the genesis and development of
(2) See Ferriss and Young (Intro.), and Mazza.
(3) See Ferriss and Young, "Chicks, Girls and Choice."
(4) See Henry.
(5) This term is put forward by Chris Elolmlund in the October 2005
issue of Cinema Journal. Holmlund also identifies two other forms of
postfeminism: "grrrl" postfeminism, which can be identified
with third-wave feminism, and "academic" postfeminism which
she uses to refer to academic theorists "steeped in French,
British, and American postmodern, postcolonial, poststructural, queer,
(etc.), theory." Cris Mazza, by contrast, presents a compelling
view of postfeminism as the next phase of feminism, a phase in which
women no longer see themselves as victims of patriarchy blaming and
harboring anger towards men. Rather, postfeminist women accept
responsibility for their choices and their lives. For further discussion
of postfeminism see Baumgardner and Richards, Dicker and Piepmeir,
Henry, Modleski, Roiphe, Rowe-Finkbeiner, Walker, and Wolf.
(6) For this reason, Cinema Journal devoted an "In Focus"
section to the subject in Winter 2005. In it, one prominent film scholar
defines chick postfeminism as a "backlash against or a dismissal of
the desirability for equality between women and men, in the workforce
and in the family" (Holmlund). That seems to us a reductive view.
Instead, it is more legitimate to note, as Yvonne Tasker and Diane Negra
do, that "the continuing contradiction between women's
personal and professional lives is more likely to be foregrounded in
postfeminist discourse than the failure to eliminate either the pay gap
or the burden of care between men and women." Overall, the essays
included do a fine job of presenting the issues from feminist film
(7) Joanne Hollows and Rachel Moseley argue that such resistance to
popular culture on the part of feminists may be disingenuous. They
contend that "apart from women actively involved in the second-wave
of feminism in the 1960s and 1970s, most people's initial knowledge
and understanding of feminism has been formed within the popular and
through representation. Rather than coming to consciousness through
involvement in feminist movements, most people become conscious of
feminism through the way it is represented in popular culture" (2).
(8) See Ferriss and Young, "Chicks, Girls and Choice."
(9) Madonna's 1980s postfeminist discourse is clearly a
precursor to and major influence on the 1990s movement we focus on here.
Her later works, however, such as Erotica (1992), Body of Evidence
(1993), and her book Sex (1992) provide ideal examples of the '90s
postfeminist aesthetic. See, for example, Humphrey and Fricke for
favorable accounts of Madonna's sexual power politics. On the other
hand, both Ariel Levy and Pamela Paul have argued that participants in
"raunch culture" mistake sexual power for power itself.
(10) Nor does it necessarily mean eschewing domestic pleasures.
Joanne Hollows argues that "the domestic can't be simply
celebrated as a site of feminine virtue or as a site of pre-feminist
subordination. Instead, the meanings of the domestic, and domestic
femininities, are contextual and historical and what operates as a site
of subordination for some women may operate as the object of fantasy for
(11) Karen Hollinger's book, In the Company of Women:
Contemporary Female Friendship Films, explores this issue fully.
(12) It is worth noting that the modern ethnic Cinderella story of
Maid in Manhattan, unlike the other films mentioned here, was clearly
aimed not at Latina but at white audiences.
(13) Laura Mulvey argued that classic cinema positions the female
protagonist as the object of a male gaze, that she embodies
"to-be-looked-at ness," and that female spectators find
pleasure in narcissistic identification with her, imagining themselves
in her position. Recent film theory has criticized this theory for
reifying gender stereotypes and presuming an exclusively heterosexual
model of desire. For a succinct overview of complications introduced by
consideration of lesbian specatorship, see Hollinger,
(14) See Berenstein.
(15) Lisa Henderson, for example, explores how Go Fish is at once
"an instance (and an anti-instance)" of the chick-flick staple
genre, the romantic comedy.
(16) Unconditional Love, however, was not successful at the box
(17) On chick lit's relation to fashion and consumerism, see
(18) See Eckert and Gaines.
(19) By contrast, television appears to have more successfully
targeted viewers to sell products. The online shopping site SeenON!
(www.seenon.com) allows consumers to search for the clothing, furniture,
cars, and even paint colors featured in their favorite shows, such as
Desperate Housewives and Grey's Anatomy. The film category features
only a handful of recent releases, while the TV section organizes dozens
of shows by network.
(20) See MediaChannel's chart for a compelling visual
representation of the six major media corporations and their holdings.
(21) It may also be worth observing that at least one recent film,
The Devil Wears Prada, based on Lauren Weisberger's chicklit roman
h clef about her stint working for Anna Wintour at Vogue, holds
fashionistas up to ridicule.
(22) Still, it should be noted that the film was not a box office
success, finding its primary audience through a cult appeal to gay men
and academic women. The suggestion here may be that the distancing
mainstream chickflick audiences will embrace has a limit.
(23) The National Center for Education Statistics in the U.S.
reports in The Condition of Education 2006 that "At the graduate
and professional level, as among undergraduates, women are outpacing
men, in raw numbers and in particular fields .... Women now earn more
degrees than do men in a range of fields once overwhelmingly male [...]
and women earn as many degrees as men in such previously maledominated
disciplines as medicine and law, the report says. A generation ago,
women earned only a quarter to a third of those degrees. And women have
maintained their dominance in fields they have long flocked to, such as
education" ("Enrollments Keep Rising").
(24) The term "remarriage comedy" comes from Stanley
An Affair to Remember (Leo McCary, 1957)
Amelie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001)
The Banger Sister's (Bob Dolman, 2002)
Beaches (Garry Marshall, 1988)
Beauty Shop (Bille Woodruff, 2005)
Because I Said So (Nancy Meyers, 2007)
Bend It Like Beckham (Gurinder Chadha, 2002)
Better than Chocolate (Anne Wheeler, 1999)
Bride and Prejudice (Gurinder Chadha, 2005)
Bridget Jones's Diary (Sharon Maguire, 2001)
Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks, 1938)
Calendar Girls (Nigel Cole, 2003)
Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle (McG, 2003)
Clueless (Amy Heckerling, 1995)
The Color Purple (Steven Spielberg, 1985)
Dark Victory (Edmund Goulding, 1939)
The Devil Wears Prada (David Frankel, 2006)
Down with Love (Peyton Reed, 2003)
Eat, Drink, Man, Woman (Ang Lee, 1994)
The Family Stone (Thomas Bezucha, 2005)
Four Weddings and a Funeral (Mike Newell, 1994)
Freaky Friday (Mark Waters, 2003)
French Kiss (Lawrence Kasdan, 1995)
Fried Green Tomatoes (Jon Avnet, 1991)
Funny Face (Stanley Donen, 1957)
Girlfight (Karyn Kusama, 2000)
Go Fish (Rose Troche, 1994)
Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939)
His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940)
Tire Hours (Stephen Daldry, 2002)
How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (Donald Petrie, 2003)
How Stella Got Her Groove Back (Kevin Rodney Sullivan, 1998)
In Her Shoes (Curtis Hanson, 2005)
It Happened One Night (Frank Capra, 1934)
Just Like Heaven (Mark Waters, 2005)
Kate and Leopold (James Mangold, 2001)
Legally Blonde (Robert Luketic, 2001)
Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde (Charles Herman-Wurmfeld,
Love Jones (Theodore Witcher, 2004)
Maid in Manhattan (Wayne Wang, 2002)
Mean Girls (Mark Waters, 2004)
Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945)
Miracle on 34th Street (George Seaton, 1947)
Morra Lisa Smile (Mike Newell, 2003)
Monsoon Wedding (Mira Nair, 2001)
Moonstruck (Norman Jewison, 1987)
Mostly Martha (Sandra Nettelbeck, 2001)
Mr. & Mrs. Smith (Doug Liman, 2005)
Mrs. Henderson Presents (Stephen Frears, 2005)
The Notebook (Nick Cassavetes, 2004)
Now, Voyager (Iriwag Rapper, 1942)
The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor, 1940)
Pretty Woman (Garry Marshall, 1990)
Pride & Prujudice (Joe Wright, 2005)
The Princess Diaries (Garry Marshall, 2001)
Puccini for Beginners (Maria Maggenti, 2006)
Raising Helen (Garry Marshall, 2004)
Real Women Have Curves (Patricia Cardoso, 2002)
Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940)
Saving Face (Alice Wu, 2004)
Shall We Dance? (Masayuki Suo, 1996; Peter Chelsom, 2004)
She's the Man (Andy Fickman, 2006)
Sleepless in Seattle (Nora Ephron, 1993)
Something's Gotta Give (Nancy Meyers, 2003)
Terms of Endearment (James L. Brooks, 1983)
Thelma & Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991)
13 Going on 30 (Gary Winick, 2004)
Tortilla Soup (Maria Ripoll, 2001)
The Truth about Cats & Dogs (Michael Lehmann, 1996)
Unconditional Love (P. J. Hogan, 2002)
Under the Tuscan Sun (Audrey Wells, 2003)
Waiting to Exhale (Forest Whitaker, 1995)
The Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Dunye, 1996)
When Harry Met Sally (Rob Reiner, 1989)