Sarah Griffin enjoyed a lively discussion at ‘After the Chick Flick: Female Identities and Hollywood Film’, which followed a screening of Howard Hawks’ 1940 screwball comedy His Girl Friday at the IFI.
Panel discussions on film screenings are often an outsider’s way into the more critical side of cinema – where the deep (and meandering) thoughts can really be let loose. So it proved with ‘After the Chick Flick: Female Identities and Hollywood Film’ in the IFI on Saturday 5th of March, with a lively discussion taking place after a screening of His Girl Friday (1940). An emblematic screwball comedy, the film was a jumping-off point to dissect the genre commonly referred to as the ‘Chick Flick’; charting some of its history, analysing its place in our modern world of female action stars, and questioning the generally held belief that the style has outplayed its usefulness. The term is often used pejoratively – dismissively aligning (and maligning) disparate movies together – but has also denoted a certain type of film that remains, as Prof. Diane Negra stated, our premier genre of intimacy.
Joining Prof. Negra for post-film discussion was Dr. Deborah Jermyn and Dr. Shelley Cobb, speaking to a good number of attendees who had laughed their way together through Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell’s classic battle of the sexes. To begin, Prof. Negra gave a brief overview of the period of generic stability the Chick Flick enjoyed from the 1980s on, and how it has steadily declined in representation – to the delight of its many detractors. Coinciding with the post-millennial explosion of the Bromance, there are lots of factors to explore in how the Chick Flick has adapted to this brave new world, and whether it has survived the recent evolution or been left firmly in the past. In the time given for discussion, we could try skim the surface of whether the Chick Flick is worth investigating, worth considering and, in the end, worth preserving.
Dr. Jermyn qualified her position by telling the gathered group that she is currently researching Nancy Meyers, a name synonymous with Chick Flicks and someone who has actively revelled in the moniker through her prolific career. As it happens, Meyers had a strong connection to His Girl Friday, as Dr. Jermyn explained – having found much in the film to emulate in her own filmmaking, perhaps most importantly the emphasis placed on dialogue. Her own output echoes the back-and-forth battle of the sexes in these early film types (not yet pigeon-holed as ‘women’s movies’), where the courtship was more egalitarian in nature. Thanks to postfeminism and all its wily tricks, Dr. Jermyn pointed out that despite the rolling on of years we are still as preoccupied with the same central question this 1940s classic grappled with: can women have it all?
Dr. Shelley spoke about her own influences, most particularly her studies of Jane Austen’s works and how they have filtered down into movie making and the representation of romance. She questioned how useful or problematic the ‘Chick Flick’ term is, and the shift in culture influenced on all sides by the solidifying of the ‘Bromance’ movie, raunch culture, Judd Apatow’s brand of feminism, and the rise of the ‘female friendship’ sub-genre. Also on the table were the recent ‘alternative’ Chick Flicks that (mostly male) critics laud as turning the genre on its head, saving the style or representing ‘good’ feminism – Bridesmaids (2011) and Trainwreck (2015), to name two high-profile examples. As with the best panel discussions, the greatest revelations were those you felt you could and should have seen yourself – the decline of star-driven Chick Flicks, and actresses whose names you could automatically associate with a certain type of film. These are stars of the past we all recognise; Julia Roberts, Meg Ryan, Sandra Bullock, Jennifer Lopez, Reese Witherspoon and Katherine Heigl. Female stars now appear to actively avoid the genre, relying more and more on action films to anchor an acting persona. Yet the Chick Flick was an area where women were allowed to take up space – what do we lose in its exit?
Prof. Negra talked again about Chick Flicks’ movement away from the playfulness and intimacy of a film like His Girl Friday. The ’80s marked this diversion, highlighted by Nora Ephron’s filmic belief that men and women are totally different, resulting in a cinematic style-glut summed up by Ephron’s Sleepless in Seattle (1993) – a couple presented as two separate entities until the very final act. When talking about intimacy, (and the lack thereof), in visual representation it would be hard to avoid speaking about the pornification of modern society. By sheer ubiquity, it has affected Chick Flicks perhaps more than any other genre in terms of the representation of courtship and intimacy, leading to a response of cinematic chasteness. There is a sense of generic exhaustion about the Chick Flick, and an uncertainty in the current gender order that means ensemble casts and female friendship movies take precedence.
As with the very best of panel discussions, the questions from attendees were rapid and insightful. Emerging adulthood and extended adolescence in millennials was raised, with an enthusiastic response from the panel – how this has changed Chick Flicks, making it harder to stage a happy ending in terms that are recognisable to cinema-goers often forced by economic situations to continue living in arrested development. It was pointed out that the shared cultural experience of cinema has largely disappeared, apart from behemoths like Star Wars, and shifted to television – another suggested nail in the coffin of Chick Flicks. Event movies are, of course, big business, and in a production culture that largely favours worldwide releases and global integration, the banter of the Chick Flick has fallen to the wayside in favour of more easily marketable vehicles. With the #OscarsSoWhite controversy still a strong part of the conversation, the important issue of Chick Flicks’ essential whiteness and concern with affluence was well worth discussing. The working class romance has largely been abandoned, and while ensemble movies allow for token diversity in casting, the genre is still very committed to whiteness.
The discussion had to be halted because of time constraints, but there was a feeling of eagerness and enthusiasm that could have kept it going for hours more. Combining a screening with a panel discussion works so beautifully to bring everyone to the same point of reference for conversation, and this one opened up the concept of Chick Flicks as a genre worthy of much more thought. It provided a free space in which to let the inner film nerd out to chat with like-minded people, and agree and disagree in security. The audience left with loud chatter, and a thirst for more – surely the job of any event like this, and boding well for the coming year at the IFI.