The Chick Movie, Updated

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.

(Sorry, Mikey.)

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5 responses to “The Chick Movie, Updated

  1. You’ve given me my new aspiration in life: to become the alpha female in the dating scene who utters the words: “You’re a parenthesis.” LOVE it!

  2. I’ve thought too about whether people choose Dragon Tattoo, etc. because of or in spite of the disturbing content. The two people who pushed the Dragon Tattoo books on me were both grandmothers — not people who I would have expected to endorse — or enjoy or even tolerate — that kind of content. Maybe that’s a failure of my imagination or, or what?

    Thanks for the posts and the conversation. I love your writing (and I’m super-critical about what I read), especially your Jan Schramm(?) comment elsewhere…. I’ve been watching Mad Men, but on Netflix, so I’m a few seasons behind.

  3. I haven’t seen Winter’s Bone, but I agree with what you say about the other movies and the new genre, or the new twist on the genre — a positive one! — that they represent.

    I’m torn, though, about the Dragon Tattoo (just read the book; haven’t seen the movie). Strong, smart, interesting women yes, but they get brutalized, sexually, in a way that was really disturbing to me, and I have a pretty strong stomach for such stuff. That this widely read, popular entertainment included such serious violence against women really surprised and quite upset me. Yeah, there’s revenge, but still. I don’t watch True Blood, but reading your post about that was kind of how I felt about Dragon Tattoo.

    • I’m one of those people who saw the film — The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo — and did not read the book. I picked up the second in the series instead, and found the first few pages more than a little off-putting.

      From the film, I’d kind of known what to expect: but still. Wow.

      As this has become “my cause” lately — I do not think it’s accidental, these depictions of gender violence, given our clear dominance in the workplace, and new words like “mancession” — I don’t see myself becoming any less sensitive to it.

      I wonder how many readers and viewers select these things *because* they include that content, rather than sort of stick with it for the narrative payoff. When I was watching that True Blood episode, I thought: Do I *want* to be sitting here with all the show’s new rapist fans? Um. No.

      I’m still working on “The Girl Who Played With Fire”, in part because of that content. And I’m not sure I’ll go back to any pay-cable series, because now I have a pretty good idea of how they use their subscriber liberties.

      Thanks for a thoughtful post. Hope to hear from you again!

  4. Brava! Tough chicks rock.

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