Culture

‘Chick Flicks’: Iconic or Formulaic?

Image: Reese Witherspoon as Elle Woods in Legally Blonde, wearing a pink hat and holding a chihuahua.

From familiar character archetypes like the ‘dumb blonde’ or ‘mean girl’, to plot points like the ‘meet-cute’, the makeover scene, or the overused love triangle, it can sometimes feel like if you have watched one ‘chick flick’, you have watched them all. Rather than a single genre defined by set themes or styles, the term ‘chick flick’ is essentially a catch-all for a variety of different genres (including romantic comedies, coming of age films, and often musicals and period dramas) aimed at women. Though these films are often commercial successes with large fan bases – Netflix has had great success with To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018)and The Kissing Booth (2018)- they are often disparaged by critics for supposedly lacking depth and substance. Chick flicks perhaps owe their popular success to their emphasis on formative moments – think graduations, proms, and proposals – as well as being able to fit in with the pop culture of their time with their soundtracks and fashion. 

Because the term encapsulates so many different genres, I will mostly be focusing on romantic comedies, as well as coming of age films. It is true that many of these films do follow specific tropes and plots, and therefore can feed into toxic stereotypes or appear formulaic. The tropes present in these films mirror real-world stereotypes and views about women. Despite this, I think that there are some films that challenge the formula – such as Legally Blonde (2001) – or are able to utilise tropes in fresh and enjoyable ways. 

Chick flicks rely on archetypes to the extent that they could be considered same-y. Even so, I don’t think that this issue is unique to romantic comedies or coming-of-age films. Every genre of film has a plethora of archetypes and similar plots. It is a wider issue within film – and, indeed, within storytelling – that many stories do follow similar structures to what has been successful before. However, I would like to see films in the rom-com and coming of age categories break away further from what has been done before (though many already have, as I will discuss later). The main problem with the archetypes that so-called ‘chick flicks’ follow is that they feed into pernicious stereotypes that have real-world implications. It is one thing for fantasy films to follow Tolkien-esque conventions. It is quite another for films aimed at young women to repeatedly present makeovers as being key to making a protagonist attractive and popular, to sideline characters from minority groups to roles of merely helping the protagonist, or to romanticise unhealthy relationships. On the other hand, these films are often some of the few that even attempt to deal with issues that girls and women face and have women as protagonists – even massive franchises like Marvel only have two films (so far) featuring women as the titular main characters (Ant-Man and the Wasp, 2018 and Captain Marvel, 2019). 

Part of the criticism comes from the misconception that women’s tastes are more superficial.

That the generic focus on ‘shallow’ issues such as appearance and relationships is silly and frivolous is a criticism often raised about chick flicks. This is only true to a degree, as I also think that part of this criticism comes from the misconception that women’s tastes are more superficial. There are some films that focus on relationships in a shallow way. I think The Kissing Booth series is a prime example of a film with a shallow plot and characters. However, I don’t think it is a fair criticism to apply to all romantic comedies in general. The genre does need to re-examine and potentially re-frame how it examines themes of relationships, insecurities, and appearances (among others), but focusing on them isn’t necessarily a bad thing, per se. Just as there are a lot of films that handle this focus badly, some do it well. A prime example of this is Legally Blonde. In this film, the ‘dumb blonde’ archetype is turned on its head very effectively, as is the idea that intelligence is incompatible with beauty. Elle Woods becomes unapologetically stylish and smart. It also handles relationships in an interesting way, for although Elle initially goes to Harvard to try and win back her ex, Warner, she eventually turns her attention to being a great law student, helping her friend Paulette, andfinding a better, healthy relationship with someone who values her for her intelligence. Instead of presenting a relationship as the only thing that matters, we see that it is only one of the many important aspects of her life. Legally Blonde is by no means a perfect film, or the only film to subvert tropes or bring something new. More recent films like Booksmart (2019)or Lady Bird (2017) are lauded for the way that they bring a fresh spin on the coming-of-age movie. 

Unsurprisingly, romantic comedies and other genres that target women are unlikely to be seen at the likes of the Oscars. But they are still massively commercially successful. While I don’t think that The Kissing Booth or Twilight (2008) deserve to go anywhere near an award, I do think that there are a lot of putative ‘chick flicks’ which are genuinely good films. Though these films have women as protagonists, it is not only women who are able to watch them and enjoy them. Even some of the films that might not be ‘good’ (though the idea of a good film is extremely subjective), are at best enjoyable watches and at worst a perfectly innocuous way to pass the time. For example, the film The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants (2005) focuses heavily on important themes of friendship, and we enjoy the relatable protagonists of Angus Thongs and Perfect Snogging (2008) or Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001). Mean Girls (2004)is a fun satire on the ‘mean girl’ trope, and Clueless (1995)is a clever spin on Jane Austen’s Emma for the 90s. Flamboyant outfits and pop soundtracks make these films even more iconic; they often feel like small time capsules of the fashion and pop culture of the year in which they were set. Most importantly, these films are fun, a quality which is often overlooked. 

I hope that we can start to be able to see past the sexist idea that all films aimed at women are automatically vapid and shallow offerings to the film world.

However, I find that there is another strand of rom-coms which, instead of following the idea of moving from tropes and developing new ways of creating within the genre, does the opposite and leans as heavily into tropes as possible. Though these films can be enjoyable – there is nothing inherently wrong with a formula that works – I think that they limit the progress of the genre. There are only so many times you can watch rehashes of the same plots and characters before it becomes tedious. I will admit that I have spent several Christmases watching all the A Christmas Prince (2017, 2018, 2019)films. Netflix seems to have an obsession with romantic comedies about royalty and Christmas, as it is also responsible for the Princess Switch (2018, 2020)films. The offerings in the A Christmas Prince series were relatively harmless, but they relied so heavily on formulae that they didn’t really bring anything new. If you have ever fallen down the rabbit-hole of rom-coms where one member of the couple is royalty, then you will be familiar with the tropes of this sub-genre – often pairing up a character who is by no means a royalist with a progressive prince or princess who just wants to escape their duties and experience ‘real’ life. The same issue of films leaning too heavily into tropes to the point that they become boring or caricaturish is also present in other sub-genres of the romantic comedy, such as Hallmark Christmas films or films about high school relationships. Marketing also feeds into this – looking at the posters for autumn or winter themed rom-coms makes it almost impossible to tell these films apart. 

The term ‘chick flick’ feels quite outdated to me: I am not sure how useful the term is, considering it conflates genre with target audience, and its doing so means that Little Women (2019) can be put in the same genre as Hairspray (2007), even though they couldn’t be more different. I hope that we can start to be able to see past the sexist idea that all films aimed at women are automatically vapid and shallow offerings to the film world, or that only women can enjoy films with women as protagonists. However, for the genre to fully break away from the stereotypical and formulaic, new films must carve their own path instead of trying to replicate what made the likes of Clueless and Mean Girls so popular. Rather than cashing in on nostalgia (an issue that is present in the film world in general) with repetitive ideas, audiences deserve better films that are forward-thinking and innovative, exploring the lives of women in sensitive and interesting ways, rather than attempting to emulate what worked in the 90s and early 2000s. 

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