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Postfeminism: The Essential Evolution of Chick Flicks

Feminism has extended to all areas of social development, forms of art included. Since the 1980s, a great number of works have been addressed to a female audience. These works surged in the early 2000s and continued to evolve through the 2010s and early 2020s. The outcome of this targeting has derived into the genre of ‘chick lit' or 'chick flick’ entertainment, expanding into both literary and cinematographic fields. For the sake of conciseness, this article will entirely focus on ‘chick flick’, the cinematographic branch of the genre and examine the growing discrepancy that the shift from neo-feminism to postfeminism values has created with the portrayal of feminine characters in chick flicks.

In its early developments, chick flicks were understood as white female-targeted films which involved white feminine-related topics and whose main female white characters “are often strong, confident and quick-witted, engaging in verbal battles to achieve their ‘happily ever after’ either with their lead male character or with fellow female characters, or sometimes both.” (Wilkins, 2017. p. 149). Works such as Mean Girls (2004), The Princess Diaries (2001), Clueless (1995), or Pretty Woman (1990) have become quite iconic to the chick flick genre. However, their implications go beyond plot-related issues which this article will explore, such as sexuality, gender, and male-dominated spaces. Race and ethnicity are topics which chick flicks do not usually approach in depth: as such, they are already found lacking in that department. Therefore, the aim of this article is to present how such implications have launched the evolution of the genre since the 1990s and how it has clashed with postfeminist theory.

Figure 1. Mean Girls (2004). Paramount Pictures.

To begin with, the first productions were not directly labeled chick flicks: instead, they were categorized as "Girly Films". Radner (2010) contends that “what sets the girly film apart from other films geared towards a female is its focus on consumer culture.” (Radner, 2010. p. 29). In fact, the films presented before act as evidence of such an argument. In all of them, the action of buying feminine clothes, makeup, or shoes represents a large part of women’s identities. As Radner (2010) further argues, “the aspects of these films that unite them revolve around […] the way in which the heroine herself is defined” (Radner, 2010. p. 29). In addition, main female characters tend to be defined in contrast with other female characters, mostly to their expense, which drives the narrative towards the creation of unhealthy environment and relationship dynamics as far as female companionship is concerned. Such companionship ceases to exist only to be recaptured at the end of the film. Retrospectively, this definition implies a set of beliefs and values mainstreamed by a heteronormative system. In other terms, those female characters who do not correspond to the neo-feminist mould (i.e., the empowerment of women through the celebration of preconceived and conventional feminine traits) are not recognized as deserving of lead characters.

Nonetheless, a noteworthy counter-argument lies in the claim that this decision of conventional feminine main characters might have appeared in order to create a noticeable contrast in male-dominated spaces. For example, in films such as Legally Blonde (2001) or The Devil Wears Prada (2006), both characters enter a social and professional space in which men predominate considerably more than women might: the legal system and the business world. Correspondingly, “[these films] also show the price women -unlike men- have to pay for their professional achievements, and how rare their success is in predominantly male professions.” (Oria, 2022. p. 5)

Figure 2. Legally Blonde (2001). Type A Films.

Despite this valid argument, these productions endorse a prototypical perception of femininity that does not fully represent the female population. Therefore, if chick flicks are targeted to female audiences, they ought to include all varieties of female expression, including those that may not identify with the female or male gender. Consequently, the major issue that fuels the growing critical analysis of chick flick prototypic female characters does not target the goal of representing women, which is clearly feminist, but rather the means of methods of inclusion that are resorted to. At this point, the postfeminist and transfeminist agenda comes into play.

Still in its earliest stages of theorization, the postfeminism current encloses discourses that exceed the role of women. Correspondingly, Postfeminism “signal[s] a complicated co-existence of feminist values such as choice, equality of opportunity and agentic self-determination alongside the re-articulation of traditional expectations and traditional gender stereotypes around motherhood, beauty and female sexuality" (Lewis et al., 2017. p. 214). In other words, postfeminist theory reacts to previous feminist models and their shortcomings and lacunae regarding gender-related topics, such as binary thinking, essentialism, and the relationship between femininity and feminism.

Figure 3. Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada (2006). Fox 2000 Pictures. Film still.

Although recent productions of chick flicks, such as Do Revenge (2022), include divergent forms of feminine expression and sexuality, they still endorse this mode of thinking. In addition, “contemporary chick flicks […] take the subjects of heterosexuality or homosexuality and rather than subverting them, treat them in a far more playful and light-hearted manner.” (Wilkins, 2017. p. 151). As a result, while the comedic tone of the original chick flicks is maintained, its implications are not completely challenged. Notwithstanding, Radner (2010) clarifies that:

While there are elements in contemporary culture that might be understood as a backlash against feminist, girly films, as an expression of neo-feminism, do not situate themselves against feminism; rather, they are indifferent to the kinds of social and political concerns that set feminists apart from the general group of female strivers seeking to achieve the ideals of neo-liberalism. Thus, many feminist critiques of contemporary culture tend to underline its conflicted nature, producing an ambivalent and unresolved analysis that can neither reject nor affirm contemporary popular feminine culture, nor decipher its relations with feminism.” (Radner, 2010, p. 192)
Figure 4. Do Revenge (2022). Netflix.

To conclude, the analysis of chick flicks and their inferences suppose a contrast between values held in the branch of neo-feminism and postfeminism, a distinct emerging branch within feminism currents. Chick flicks emerged from the former, but in comparison to the developments of the latter, the productions have not yet entirely progressed with the contents and representations themselves. Hence, chick flicks have socially been judged as pejorative slang for certain collectives, principally white female portrayals because of their neo-feminist approach. Therefore, such films should modify some classical girly plotlines in order to include all sorts of forms of identification that forth-wave feminism defends. Lastly, chick flicks have enormous potential to continue promoting a postfeminist agenda that supports the causes for which many fight today.

Bibliographical references

Oria, B. (2022). Women on top? Challenging the “Mancession” Narrative in the 2010s Chick Flick. Feminist Media Studies, 1-16.

Lewis, P. et al. (2017). Postfeminism, Gender and Organization. Gender, Work & Organization, 24(3), 213-225.

Radner, H. (2010). Neo-Feminist Cinema: Girly Films, Chick Flicks, and Consumer Culture. Taylor & Francis Group.

Wilkins, H. (2017). Talkies, Road Movies and Chick Flicks: Gender, Genre and Film Sound in American Cinema. Edinburgh University Press.

Visual References

1 Comment

Jan 16, 2023

This was such an interesting article with fresh and necessary insight into the world of 'chick-flick'. As a young woman growing up with this kind of films as a reference, it is very interesting how we embrace them even if we have grown out of them. Good article!🤗

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Natàlia Vila

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