Valentine's is upon us and no doubt the DVD sales of Four Weddings and a Funeral are skyrocketing. The term ‘chick flick’ is bandied around as a pessimistic adjective groaned out by men trying to avoid the movies their wives or girlfriends are attracted to. Interestingly it was one of the crass exponents of the genre, Sleepless in Seattle that first coined the term when Sam (Tom Hanks) balks at his sister’s assertion that An Affair to Remember is the greatest film ever made: “ugh, it’s a chick flick.”
Now it’s time to reverse the trend and re-brand the term as a signifier of excellence in female character driven cinema. All genres were considered, with the main requirement being a strong, believable female lead with enough chutzpah to make everyone in the audience admire them. What of the male subservient characters of Meg and Julia? Silly rom-com wimpettes are out of this game! This is a tribute to ten films that stake a claim for the ‘chick flick’ to no longer be known as a shortcut to Kleenex and ice cream. If you absolutely have to watch one this Thursday, make it one of these ten. Strictly no Andie MacDowell. (And unless your partner is a cinephile, there probably won’t be any sex either.)
10. Mean Girls (2004, dir. Mark Waters)
Writer Tina Fey’s comedy astutely portrays the Darwinian high school eco system and social politics that shape the rites of passage of young women. Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan) is the intelligent but naïve home schooled teenager whose parents’ relocation forces her into the American scholastic milieu in order to be ‘socialized.’ It’s a tumultuous process but ultimately Cady’s tale allows Fey to stress the importance of true identity in a contemporary environment where teenage girls are so easily shaped by social status.
9. Adam’s Rib (1949, dir. George Cukor)
Cukor’s screwball battle of the sexes was way ahead of its time in terms of sexism and marital issues. Ambitious and intelligent lawyer Amanda (Katherine Hepburn) twists the nerves of male authority and challenges male supremacy, while finding time to trade witty barbs with Spencer Tracy. Knowing that a man in her client’s position (attempted murder on a philandering husband) will be legally acquitted and vindicated, she determinedly shows evidence of women's accomplishments to prove their equality with men.
8. Whale Rider (2002, dir. Niki Caro)
In the patriarchal Maori society Caro paints a poetic portrait of Pai (Keisha Castle Hughes) who has been cast aside by her grandfather in his search for a new leader of their tribe. His love of her, achingly tinged by disappointment over her sex, is incentive for Pai to secretly train in the ‘old ways’ despite his protests. When Pai triumphantly emerges as the saviour of her people’s fortunes it is a truly moving moment, and a smack in the face of institutional sexism.
What makes this special is that we ironically find this female empowerment tale wrapped in a film noir, a genre hardly known for its kindness to women. Mildred (a mid-career Joan Crawford) will not be put upon by her bum of a husband or hindered by the Great Depression. She walks out and sacrifices everything to become a self-made entrepreneur by running her own diner to raise her children. She is a beacon- like character for the plethora of strong businesswomen in cinema.
6. The Hours (2002, dir. Stephen Daldry)
Featuring three of cinema’s finest actresses (Streep, Kidman and Moore), The Hours stitches together the fates of three characters connected by the novel Mrs Dalloway; one is writing it, one is living it and the other is reading it. Daldry’s glacial meditation on female intimacy delicately reveals the reality behind the smokescreen of the society hostess. Here the façade is lifted to reveal the shared bond of quiet desperation, and the cathartic power of literature.
5. All About Eve (1950, dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
“I’m 40 years old…I feel like I’m naked in front of you,” intones Bette Davis’ Margot Channing in a film, while better known for Machiavellian scheming, is also a unique look at ageing.
From the sovereign of the gangster picture comes a rare female-centred drama, which Scorsese sandwiched in between Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, but remains a bona fide classic in its own right. Ellen Burstyn bagged an Oscar for her portrait of the movie's eponymous widow and mother forced to depend on herself for the first time in her life and follow her dream of singing professionally.
3. Aliens (1986, dir. James Cameron)
The surprise Oscar nod for Sigourney Weaver is surely enough proof that Ellen Ripley was a character that made an impact amid Cameron’s weapons fetish. In an environment dripping with testosterone, it is Ripley who straps on the hardware and marches into battle to save her friends without sacrificing her femininity. She is both mother and warrior, and more than a match for the Queen of HR Geiger’s biomechanical beasties.
2. All About My Mother (1999, dir. Pedro Almodovar)
Almodovar is now known for his female-centric cinema and here is his ultimate ode to great female performers in the form of a magnificent tapestry of femininity with an affectionate wink to classics of theater and cinema in this poignant story of love, loss and compassion. Here women are rightly to be respected as caregivers to society without which we’d all be on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
1. Thelma and Louise (1991, dir. Ridley Scott)
Gina Davis and Susan Sarandon are mad as hell, and they’re not going to take it anymore! A spin on the male dominated buddy film, this time we have two working class gal pals on the road and on the run from oppressive masculinity. Although now a pop culture cliché, this film has two wonderful lead performances and a great script from Callie Khourie about the joy of discovering autonomy, companionship and most importantly, yourself. Truly iconic.