Today I was fortunate enough to break away from mountains of paperwork to attend an incredible seminar entitled "The Chick Flick Grows Up," programmed by the organization Women in Film. I'd been looking forward to this conference ever since I found out that the panel would include the writer/directors of some of my favorite films: Karen McCullah (10 Things I Hate About You, Legally Blond, She's the Man), Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are Alright, which I plan to see ASAP, Laurel Canyon), and Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love and Basketball, The Secret Life of Bees). I was stoked just to be in the same room as these ladies. They could have talked about navel lint and Panamanian tadpoles and I would have been enthralled. But in an hour and a half, they covered some fairly major issues. Here comes the obligatory list:
1. What is a 'chick flick?' Does the term "ghettoize/marginalize" the creators and/or audience of female-driven content? (Yes they used the word 'ghettoize' than once. It made me giggle.)
2. Why are so many female-centric films still directed by men? Television has a much greater proportion of female directors; why has film yet to catch up? Kathryn Bigelow and the Hurt Locker. How a female director transcended her gender to win Best Picture.
3. Ageism in the media. There are so few actresses over forty who can get a project greenlit right away, if they can get cast at all.
4. Why is a female-written R-rated romantic comedy like the Ugly Truth (penned by McCullah) derided in reviews as "obscene" when Judd Apatow's films are praised for their vulgarity. (I'm not saying the Ugly Truth is as good as Knocked Up. But it does make you wonder why male writers/directors/actors can get away with with swearing like sailors and minds in the gutter, but it's inappropriate for women to be raunchy.)
5. The concept of "likeability." Impossible to define and even harder to create consistently. Prince-Bythewood told an anecdote about how studio executives didn't think Sanaa Latham was likeable enough because she wasn't smiling in the majority of the first week of dailies (most of the scenes were heavily dramatic). They were also perplexed by why she didn't seem to enjoy losing her virginity in a pivotal scene. The women in the audience had a good laugh at that one. She was chided for being too realistic.
6. MPAA ratings and how they affect the final draft of the script. The House Bunny was supposed to be R rated. It was about a Playboy model, for god's sake. But in order to capitalize on McCullah's Legally Blonde audience, they had to tone down the naughty humor. Sacrificing tone for mainstream appeal.
7. Why everyone loves scripts by Prince-Bythewood and Cholodenko, but no one will pay for them. High quality movies that they want to see get made, but aren't willing to risk millions of dollars on primarily black casts (that haven't played well internationally), or cause controversy by addressing the subject of homosexuality in a family context.
8. How casting is often decided by a formula that determines a star's 'international worth,' rather than who is best for the role.
9. What it means to compromise during the marketing campaign and let the experts get butts in the seats. It may not always be what you want, but if it gets people to see your movie, you have to pick your battles.
10. Paying respect to male characters in female-centric movies (as opposed to the arc-less, shrew girlfriends in most male-driven fare)
Any one of those topics could make for fantastic feminist/film research papers, but I'm not willing to delve deeper for a silly little blog. If any of them strike your interest, feel free to discuss in the comments. And now for some sound bites (they may not be exact quotes, but I think I got the spirit of them):
"Men are often surprised at how funny 'Legally Blonde' is." -McCullah on the subtle sexism of lowered expectations.
"No one ever thought of it as a black book. It was just a book." -Prince-Bythewood on 'The Secret Life of Bees.'
"Don't limit yourself when writing. Let them worry about the budget." -McCullah
"It's all about the way you feel when you leave the theater." -Prince-Bythewood on why no one thought Slumdog Millionaire would ever find an audience with no stars.
"Your film's gotta have great laughs or great sex. Something that really gets the heart beating." -Cholodenko on advice she was given by male studio execs.
"Dear ____, I"m so sorry about your tiny penis." -McCullah in response to a critic who didn't appreciate the line about Joey Donner's tiny dick in 10 Things.
"Once you label yourself as something, others will label you as well." -Prince-Bythewood, on being an African-American woman who refuses to pigeonhole the stories she wants to tell.
Overall it was an inspiration just to share oxygen with women who have overcome discrimination of all kinds to achieve both critical acclaim and commercial success. They were insightful and hilarious (especially Karen McCullah. I now regret dissing the Ugly Truth. It was a cute movie that took place in my under-appreciated hometown of Sacramento). The experience reignited my easily vanquished desire to write. It gave me hope that I might one day sit on that very panel and inspire some other lazy girl with a blog and a dream. It was also fun to see three women who may share an occupation and a role in reversing the marginalization of women in the film industry, but have nothing else in common and clearly can't stand each other.