Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Kickass Women in Film

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:

Karen McCullah Lutz

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.

Gina Prince-Bythewood

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.

Lisa Cholodenko

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.


  1. Not so fast! While Ten Things I Hate About You, Legally Blonde, and She's the Man were all very funny movies, I agree with your original opinion that The Ugly Truth missed the mark. If you hadn't clued me in, I would have never guessed that these were all written by the same woman. The Ugly Truth was too predictable and Heigl's character was a stereotype, one that she already played with a little more likeability in Knocked Up. I did like that it was set in Sacramento (the hubby is from there, and we spent three or four years living there), but I didn't feel like it was very well-researched as a location and, as a result, it didn't really feel like Sacramento to me.

    Did they discuss trailers at all? Because one of my biggest problems with The Ugly Truth was that the trailer gave the entire movie away. HUGE problem in film these days. I'm so sick of it. A good trailer can make or break a movie, and a great many romantic comedies are being sold by showing the entire plot, start to finish, in the preview. Gosh, that irks me!

    /rant :)

  2. They didn't discuss trailers, but the did talk about marketing. They don't get a say in it at all. They are subjected to whatever the marketing experts decide. This was more in regards to posters than trailers.

    As I told my sister-in-law who is also a vehement hater of Ugly Truth, I still don't think it was that great. But knowing that most of the horrible things Gerard Butler says were actually said in real life by someone Karen McCullah knows, helped me to believe it a little more. Not to mention the whole Judd Apatow theory that women aren't allowed to be as raunchy as men. So I'm a little more forgiving now. Not to mention, it wasn't trying to be Citizen Kane. It was just a mediocre romantic comedy. And Katherine Heigl was one of the examples of internationally bankable stars. Even though she's mostly hated now in America, she is huge abroad. So that's why she keeps getting cast. That's why it was such an interesting debate about likeability and bankability in casting.

  3. Why I don't (normally) like chic flicks...

    While I don't spend much time thinking about or wondering who makes chic flicks one thing I have realized is that women are treated like minorities when it comes to making movies. I liken most chic flicks to movies made for African-American audiences. Black people don't think Tyler Perry is that funny but they still watch his movies. Women don't think Jennifer Lopez is a brilliant actress yet they still go and watch any movie she's pregnant/looking for love/kicking her mother in law's ass.

    Movies that pander just aren't that good, even to the people you're pandering to. It's modern day exploitation films. Don't make a movie for an audience, make a movie because you want to tell the story. A perfect example is The Notebook. Every guy you ever ask about that movie has seen it. And you know what? We all cry to that damn movie and have a great time with our cuddly girlfriends at the time. It was a good movie.

    Have a compelling story and you'll be able to touch men and women. Why do raunchy comedies geared towards men do well? Because they show naked breasts. It's pretty simple really. Men will watch any movie, no matter how horrible it is, if there are nipples involved. We would watch chic flicks for the same reason if there were multiple naked women. Just a male DNA thing. Doesn't mean we think those movies are particularly good, it's just we've had a few beers and there are breasts out.

  4. So by your definition, movies designed for men that feature boobs, etc. prominently are also exploitative and pandering. And yet they aren't considered marginalized by society's standards. While a woman might not enjoy the film as much, it wouldn't affect her femininity to attend. But a man will probably only go see a movie like the Notebook if he's dragged by his girlfriend, and even then only so he can get laid afterward. It's great that you actually enjoyed that movie and were able to get over the chick flick aspect. But I think you are one of the few. I personally hated it.

    But I completely agree about the need for compelling stories that affect audiences regardless of gender. Ideally, it shouldn't matter. The Secret Life of Bees, and I'm assuming the Kids are Alright, are such stories, and yet they are still given the term 'chick flick.' This causes an existential crisis in male viewers, making them wonder if they will be less masculine if they watch, identify, and enjoy female-driven content.

    I'm didn't post this to be all militant feminist or pro-traditional chick flick (meaning crappy rom-com). I enjoy both the lame Jennifer Lopez movies and the brilliant but vulgar Kevin Smith/Judd Apatow films. I'm genuinely curious as to why women are, as you said, treated as minorities in film. Especially when over %55 percent of audiences are women.

    If I wasn't a film major, I would have been a sociology major. I find it fascinating why we think these things.

  5. When it comes to men having the 'chic flick' crises I would just say that's sort of part of the male societal DNA (totally made that up). Just like a guy doesn't want to get busted holding his wife's purse by his buddies they don't want to get caught going to a chic flick either. It personally doesn't bother me, but some guys can't take the ribbing. Maybe that plays into it? I don't know.