The Goldberg Variations: Gender Profiling at the Multiplex

ColumnIt turns out that chick flicks are not always woman-friendly.

My husband and I were sitting in a dark theater watching a movie I had chosen, which meant it was a pretty standard indie flick, a wordy, self-conscious exploration of feelings, relationships, and female empowerment, played out at a glacial pace by anemic-looking actors from a former Soviet Republic. About an hour into it, my husband, Bob, leaned over and whispered, “When does the car chase start?”

In our daily lives, Bob and I try to break down stereotypes and model gender-neutral behavior for our offspring, but when it comes to our taste in movies, we have always been the poster children for the most simplistic of boy/girl generalizations.

During our courtship, when we tried to impress each other by denying our truest and most basic selves, we each attempted to fake an appreciation for the others choice of films. For me, this meant pretending to understand the steely-eyed appeal of Clint Eastwood, as well as an endless parade of late 20th century Star Wars movies. My husband, for his part, insists he spent most of the 80’s sitting through a steady stream of films that showed precocious young French girls embracing womanhood in quirky Parisian apartments.

But with marriage came an end to the charade, and cinematic battle lines were quickly drawn – there were “his” movies and “my” movies and after only a few seconds of a coming attraction we could tell which was which. The presence of an armored vehicle, a hired assassin or a flame thrower put the film squarely on my husband’s list; my movies were instantly recognizable by the the appearance of Dame Judi Densch, a Bronte sister, or the Pacific Northwest. (Chick flicks often take place in Seattle, maybe due to the abundance of coffee shops.) It should be noted that my movie picks are often even more unbearable for my husband because they have subtitles. As he says, “I barely want to see this movie – I certainly don’t feel like reading it.”

The choice of films is not the only movie-related thing we disagree on – it turns out we also have very different opinions on the extent to which we need to drench our popcorn in butter-flavored petrochemicals. We also disagree on how early we need to arrive (I like to get there half an hour early to secure a mid-theater aisle seat, while my husband prefers to arrive fashionably late, insuring that we will stumble over other people’s knees as the credits are playing). But it’s the films themselves that cause the most disagreement, and choosing what to see frequently comes down to a Celebrity Death Match in which Helen Mirren is pitted against Bruce Willis. We compromise by taking turns selecting films, and as time goes on this has become less problematic – at this point in our lives we can both fall asleep pretty much at will, thereby turning even the most horrible movie into a fairly enjoyable nap.

But lately I’ve noticed that I’m losing my taste for the movies being marketed to women. The turning point I think, was a recent crop of insultingly exploitative “women’s movies,” films that were shamelessly marketed as destination flicks in the hope they’d inspire a cinematic Girls’ Night Out. The most obvious example of this genre was last summer’s Sex and the City 2, a horribly bad film about four late-life sex kittens high-fiving their way around the Middle East, on the hunt for shoes, anonymous desert intercourse, and Hollywood’s dumb-downed version of sisterhood.

But as bad as SATC2 was, at least it didn’t pretend to be anything other than a mass market, girl-power romp. Even more offensive are  some of the movies that are supposedly meant for thinking women, films that purport to make serious points about relationships and gender politics. There was one in particular that I dragged my husband to, a highly touted release that clumsily combined whimsy and self-empowerment to create a painfully wrong-headed mess that appeared to be about feminism, assertiveness, and the redemptive powers of pie. The ham-fisted message of this movie was that women are good and men are bad. When the heroine commits adultery it is presented as a fearless quest for freedom and truth, but when the male character commits adultery it’s because he’s an immature, rudderless horn dog looking to score. The simplistic stereotypes were insulting and false, but even worse, they made for an unforgivably tedious viewing experience. It was about an hour into this movie, numb from all the pointless chit-chat, that I found myself wishing we had gone next door to see the The Bourne Supremacy. I leaned in towards my husband and whispered, “Do you think they’ll blow up a bridge any time soon?”


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