Historically speaking, men have made and continue to make the vast majority of films. Consequently, in addition to making up half of the population, women make up half of cinema audiences. There are a lot of gender politics that come into play in terms of quality associations and genre. Female-centric stories have long been associated with those of a lesser quality than their masculine counter-parts. Tess Barker puts it eloquently in her 2015 article, “movies aimed at guys are just movies, and movies aimed at women are chick flicks" (Barker, 2015). The now derogatory term first appeared in publications in 1988 to describe female sexploitation films. In 1989, Steel Magnolias changed the term’s meaning to that of a film with a predominately female cast and a predominately female audience. By the mid-90s, the term was woefully entangled with the romantic comedy.
The romantic comedy’s association with the chick-flick meant that the genre’s audience was mainly made up of women, but because these films were likely to be made by men, they impart pretty problematic notions of love, beauty, and acceptable behavior to the impressionable female viewer.
II. Scopophilia and the Dream Girl
Laura Mulvey describes scopophilia as “using another person as an object of sexual stimulation through sight” (Mulvey, p 715). She goes on to explain how the sexually imbalanced world favors the male gaze and how that male gaze “projects its phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly.” This associates men with the onlookers and women with the ones being looked at—painting women as passive victims to preying eyes.
Romantic comedies often use scopophilia to demonstrate the incomparable beauty of the “dream girl.” A movie dream girl can oftentimes be identified by the slow-motion shots of her face and body with halo lighting set to sexually connoted music; she is likely to be going about her day without any knowledge that she is being looked at.
III. Audience Forgivability of the Adorkable Male Lead
The exploitative beauty shots of female characters are specifically prevalent in romantic comedies with “adorkable” male leads. The adorkable male protagonist is typically a nerdy and offbeat character who does not fit into the confines of conventional attractiveness. His separation from the asshole jocks and troubled bad boys categorizes him as a nice guy. Therefore, he is not considered a threat. In fact, his identity as an outcast and his imperfect appearance serve to humanize him and garner him more sympathy from the audience. The Girl Next Door, She’s Out of My League, American Pie, There’s Something About Mary, and I Love You, Beth Cooper are some of the many films that fit into this sub-genre of romantic comedy.
Within this sub-genre, there is a clear power dynamic between the adorkable lead and the dream girl; where the male is dweeby and unpopular, the dream girl sits at the top of the social food chain and is the embodiment of physical perfection. All of her qualities speak to her general unobtainability. She is an elusive object and a prize that all of the men in the movie’s universe are competing for. The competition for the dream girl serves to alienate the male-lead because his assumption is that the perfect girl would want the perfect guy. The protagonist’s insecurities exempt him from considering himself a traditional competitor because, to him, the perfect guy is stronger, more popular, and more conventionally attractive. A key struggle of this story is that the dream girl’s idea of the perfect guy is in direct conflict with the protagonist’s assumption; she is just looking for someone to treat her well and she has either been scorned in the past by the jock or she has been deemed so unobtainable that no one has dared to try. Even still, the adorkable lead often goes to extreme lengths to redeem his reward. Whether he resorts stalking her, following her, inserting himself in situations where he doesn’t belong, or being relentless in his attempts to woo her, the audience forgives his missteps because they love to root for an underdog and the physical and social disparity between the two solidifies his inferiority.
2004’s The Girl Next Door introduces its female love interest through the bedroom window of protagonist, Matthew Kidman. Danielle is the new, next-door neighbor to the high school senior and she is ostensibly unaware that she is being watched as she enters her new home. What begins as curiosity quickly becomes inappropriate. Through Kidman’s perspective, the audience watches Danielle undress in front of the window directly across his. He is utterly transfixed by the unintentional strip-tease and certainly derives pleasure from the view. However, he is aware of his intrusiveness as evidenced by him ducking for cover when Danielle turns around to meet his gaze. At this point in the film, Matthew Kidman is already established as an ivy-league-bound, virgin and overall nice guy. Therefore, he is seen as gawking rather than staring and the audience is on his side—both literally (within the composition of the frame) and sympathetically. Instead of being considered a violation of privacy on Kidman’s part, the blame falls on Danielle for not closing her blinds. As if to say a woman should expect to be looked at because she only exists to be looked at.
Psychoanalytic theory may be used in this case to demonstrate how “the unconscious of patriarchal society has structured film form” (Mulvey, p 711). If we accept men as the makers of these films and the apparatus theory explains that every frame in a film has meaning, are these films intended to perpetuate female subservience? People learn from movies and if men get away with performing these aggressions on screen then what’s to stop them from getting away with them in real life? Further, if the male depiction of the ideal woman forgives these behaviors then are the intentions of these films for female viewers to echo the same forgiveness in actuality? Are these movies made to brainwash women into accepting poor treatment in the name of love? The conventionally attractive guy is established as douchey, controlling, untrustworthy, and morally inferior to the adorkable lead, yet—in order to get the girl—the lead stoops to the same level. If men are separated into these two categories and both treat women as objects to have in their possession, who remains to treat them as humans and what does that even look like?
IV. The Dangers of Romantic Comedies and What I Have Learned
In addition to the slew of dangerous tropes that romantic comedies perpetuate, one trope has affected my personal identity in a lasting way; the cool girl trope. Growing up with social media provided a distinctive opportunity to perpetuate a cohesive image to the outside world of who I was. On top of that, I was raised in an area of centralized wealth and privilege which meant that my prospects as a women were both limited and very conservative. As a girl, I would daydream about my perfect first kiss; my headspace was occupied entirely by my desire to be someone’s object because—from what I had learned—that was all that women were meant to be. The irony is that when I gained agency in my life, I used it to figure out how I could give it up for a man. My main source of study came from romantic comedies—the majority of which were written by men.
I took into account what the female qualities that men complained about throughout these movies and made sure to eliminate those qualities from my personality. These complaints mainly revolved around women being too emotional, too clingy, too desperate for a relationship, too gossipy, and too materialistic. On the other hand, I noted what qualities the ideal girl possessed. I began forsaking my emotions and proclaiming loudly, for all to hear, that I wasn’t interested in a relationship. I was different from other girls. I was cool. I was the girl that was down to fool around in secret and never catch feelings. I could do the no strings thing. I started watching sports enough so that I could be conversational and playing more Call of Duty with my brother. I listened to more rap and became well-versed in all the old-school stuff. In the meantime, I rejected feminine associations; I denounced pop music and female artists, hid my love for romance novels and films, shied away from pink and other girly colors and slowly, but surely chipped away at my femininity.
It was all an act. The truth is sports bore me, I find videogames absolutely nonsensical, and sometimes, it’s hard to listen to music that is dominated by male voices calling women “bitches” that only exist for sex. I really did want a boyfriend beneath my well-crafted façade of commitment-phobia. Unfortunately though, to prove I was a cool girl just meant that I knowingly let a lot of guys use me and pretended not to care.
At this point, my identity is an indecipherable mess between who I think I want to be and the patriarchal agenda. I can’t tell if I like things because I like them or if I learned that liking these things make me more desirable to men.
What I know for certain is that I love romantic comedies despite the problematic lessons they have taught me and so many other young girls. However, if these movies are made for women then they ought to be made by more of them. Perhaps the change in gaze is the solution to redefining the genre as more empowering. As a woman of 2019, I seek to use my knowledge of film theory to subvert the rigid gender politics of film. Though we need more films made with the female gaze, I’d ultimately prefer the removal of gender entirely.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Oxford University Press, USA (2009)
Barker, Tess. “A History of the Term ‘Chick Flick’ and how it Marginalizes Female Filmmakers.” MTV News. 22 May 2015. http://www.mtv.com/news/2164597/chick-flick-history/
The Girl Next Door. Dir. Luke Greenfield. Regency Enterprises, New Regency Pictures, 2004. Film.