When we were growing up in our Los Angeles suburb, my brother Mikey – a few years younger than I, always a great wit – used to describe the Chick Movie in these terms: “A movie where women hang out together, and one of them dies.”
This was in the 1980’s and early ‘90’s: the years of Fried Green Tomatoes, Steel Magnolias, Beaches, Boys On the Side, and even Thelma & Louise (a push for inclusion in the genre, but I’d argue it is one. It’s a raging-chick movie, but a chick movie nonetheless).
That was then. A new era has definitely arrived.
In Winter’s Bone, a 17-year-old girl hunts relentlessly for her missing father. Though her mother is present, she’s more or less useless – as are most of the men Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) meets. Ree generally interacts with other women, for better and worse.
Sonya (Shelley Waggener), a neighbor who always seems to know how bad things are for Ree, offers food, power tools, and stronger stuff when she can. April – the only face in this film I recognized (Sheryl Lee, once famous as Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks) – meets Ree in one of her dad’s hangouts, and gently fills in part of his story for her.
And there is Merab, gatekeeper for the local heavy. Played to the rusting hilt by Dale Dickey, Merab’s face tells us more about her life than her words ever can. When she asks Ree, who wants to ask the boss about her father’s whereabouts, if there “isn’t a man [who] can do this for you,” we can tell Merab already knows the answer.
Watching this movie is an interesting experience. We see women answering doors, quietly working, and holding the line for their absent men. Women cook, hunt (and teach small children to do the same), fight, work the land, and do everything the men would do – if there were any. Men are supporting characters, not much help when they do appear. The one man we do get to know, Ree’s uncle Teardrop, embodies this trend.
I didn’t wonder where the other men in Ree’s town are. They’re hiding. This fact arrives along with the rest of the exposition, in some unspoken message carried from set design through shared glances. The most important man in the movie – like his counterpart in another, completely different film from the 1930’s – simply never appears. This is fine. It has to be.
So we’ve come to an interesting cultural moment, with very little fanfare. Last year, few called Precious a women’s movie, but in fact it was one. International sensation The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is an unabashedly feminist thriller. In between, Vera Farmiga as Alex sat in her car, in Up In The Air, dialed up George Clooney (George Clooney!), and delivered the signature lines of the moment: “You are an escape … You’re a parenthesis.”
In the modern woman’s movie, a character with an interesting life embarks on an adventure. It doesn’t fit into one line, like “I have to get him to the Greek Theater” or “We need to grow up”. It’s a challenge, but she typically doesn’t need a rescue; in some cases she’s the rescuer. She is not parenthetical. Hers is a real job – which is probably why she is the one who has to do it.
She is thorough, prepared, and more excited than afraid. Naturally: in the modern version of the Chick Movie, women who hang out together tend to survive.