Thursday, 21 January 2010

Don't Rain on My Parade!

I was browsing the weekend's newspapers when I read Amy Jenkins' column in the Independent with interest. She makes some good points about 'women's entertainment' being a separate concept from other TV shows, films and plays, but I was riled by the judgemental tone towards 'the sort of women that go and see these things'. It was all sparked by Legally Blonde (which I reviewed not long ago.) Jenkins had been irked by descriptions of the hordes of screaming fans, and started wondering why female-marketed entertainment has become so tied up in hysteria. Along the way, she lets slip that she doesn't like the concept of LB in the first place:

...the whole thing masquerades so well as a story of female empowerment... But, as with all these "girl power" franchises, there's also something not at all empowering and much more subversive in the mix. It's the "What's wrong with a bit of lipstick" mentality – by which I mean that these films and TV shows put themselves forward as "celebrating femininity" but actually reinforce feminine subjugation.

She also drives home the point that someone like Elle Woods would not get anywhere in the legal world in real life. Ok, it's not realism. But it's also not claiming to be. How many courtrooms have you been in where the witness's sexuality has been discussed by a group of singing lawyers? It's also not claiming to be at all feminist - Elle's success in law is entirely accidental, other than perhaps her foundation of confidence. The hordes of silly fans have nothing to do with the pink and fluffy content of the play. Plenty of people went to those first few shows that didn't scream, or cry, or wolf whistle. The fact is, it's a teen story and attracts a teen crowd - along with already extrovert theatrical types, gay men and Blue fans who haven't moved on. If anything, it's the tabloidy casting that's to blame. Jenkins then name-checks several examples of female bonding over TV and film that I felt rather stung by:

All this started in a small way, I seem to remember, way back in 1995 when women were reported to be gathering around their TV sets with bottles of chardonnay to watch re-runs of Colin Firth in his wet shirt in the BBC's Pride and Prejudice. Then there was Bridget Jones and the whole Sex and the City sisterhood thing. That culminated in women reportedly making the (horrible) 2008 film a party event and drinking cosmopolitans together as they watched... Finally, of course, there was Mamma Mia!, the worldwide phenomenon that traded on the dream of middle-aged women getting their mojos back and still having some kind of clout in the sexual marketplace.

What sort of sisterhood hating is this?! Yes, I enjoyed Colin Firth in Pride and Prejudice (I was too young at the time for Chardonnay, but I remember reading Bridget Jones and appreciating that as a great girls' night in.) Yes, I saw Bridget Jones in a girly crowd and loved every minute - as did a lot of men, I happen to know. Yes, I went to see Sex and the City after a tribute day of shopping and cosmo drinking... I had loved the show for its six-year run and wanted to celebrate its fun, fashionable, fabulous spirit. And guilty again, I saw Mamma Mia at the cinema with my sister and mum, who is from the original Abba-loving generation, and laughed and sang along with the whole screening room. All of these brilliant memories of great times with fellow females were suddenly tarnished with disapproval. Having fun, en masse, perhaps drinking (whisper it) alcohol? What were we thinking?!

I'm not surprised Jenkins found the Sex and the City Movie 'horrible'; she probably couldn't relate to the main characters' experiences of love, friendship, heartbreak and the ultimate alien concept, having fun. Similarly, she was probably left cold by the sisterly spirit of the main girls in Legally Blonde, although she should have recognised herself in the initially snobby, humourless Harvard students. If anything, Sex and the City and Legally Blonde: The Musical are unrealistic mainly because they show women supporting and encouraging each other through mistakes and victories. Certain educated British women have been taught that manicures and girls' nights out only dumb us down, and the only true way to succeed is to see every woman around you as competition. This makes me sadder than any 'anti-feminist' plot could... As a culprit of the aforementioned "What's wrong with a bit of lipstick" mentality, I feel you can miss out on so much of life by taking your career, your gender, yourself too seriously.

One of the enjoyable things Bridget Jones, SATC and Legally Blonde had in common for me is that women became real, three-dimensonal figures of fun. When Helen Fielding wrote Bridget Jones, some people were horrified by the sight of a woman getting drunk, focusing on a man rather than work, going back to a cheating lover and, more often than not, just scribbling 'I blurry love Daniel' in her diary before passing out. Many, however, just saw themselves. We are not perfectly poised creatures, and we are sadly programmed (not just convinced by the media) to seek a mate and on the way, make ourselves look attractive in order to do so. I don't understand this idea that in order to be a powerful woman, you must eschew anything light-hearted, romantic, silly or exciting. The single woman drinking a cocktail with girl friends and objectifying the hot man on the screen is a hell of a lot more enlightened than the young married woman keeping house for her man and watching what he wants to watch while fixing him a drink. SATC and Legally Blonde both suggested that we might be a little pickier than that in our twenties and thirties, especially if we were lucky enough to have other women for companionship, laughs and conversation.

I'm not in the staunch 'Who needs a man?' camp but I can't stand this other extreme, the idea that groups of women bonding make the world a stupider place. There is something enchanting, wonderful and yes, shoot me, EMPOWERING about being in a roomful of women all having fun and being entertained. I felt it when spontaneous cheering, singing and clapping all broke out in the usually-mute cinema during Mamma Mia, I felt it in the relieved and knowing laughter at Bridget's hapless antics and I thought I would feel it at Legally Blonde, having listened to the witty lyrics and touching character friendships via the soundtrack. But it was a mixed group the night I went - and both the men and women present laughed, cheered and even booed. I think Jenkins needs to go back and read her own piece, where she describes the play in the title as 'the opium of the lasses.' While 'opium' suggests underlying danger and influence, it primarily represents a high, a boost and heady escapism. These shows may not change the world, but they've certainly lifted my mood, even just for a moment. Just as in this post, I take exception to anyone telling me that "celebrating femininity" - translation: having fun or feeling pretty - is a waste of time. There is enough crap in the world without these people draining all the colour from it.


  1. A really wonderfully written piece, I completely agree, there are too many women out there that think that other women are something to be feared and competed with.

    We would be much more empowered if we actually stuck together, rather that pushing each other down.

    I'm going to keep watching chick flicks and definitely keep wearing lipstick!

    E x

  2. So true!I object to people trying to make me feel guilty about liking a good chick flick. I think people are too serious and pretentious about films/theatre, its nice to have a bit of fun. I also think women being empowered should be women feeling like they can do what they want, not women being told what to do and how to act. I'm part of the 'whats wrong with a bit of lipstick' mentality and proud =) xxx

  3. Amazing piece Lu! I so agree with you...also, what is so wrong with using your femininity to your advantage? it comes down to the whole "who's the real loser, the stripper earning £1000s a week or the man paying to watch her?" question. I think our generation is realising we can have it all - not just an education and a career, but the chance to be girly again knowing that it is not actually a hindrance or a mark of stupidity, and can even be used to our advantage if we so wish.
    I have spent many a Saturday night out drinking with the girls, wearing (oh yes) LIPSTICK, before sitting around for the whole of Sunday in my PJs, watching an entire SATC series and crying at intervals over a boy I liked. who cares? it was FUN! x

  4. I think the point Amy Lawrence was trying to make was that these films/musicals aren't particularly great feminist pieces; what they might be is essentially chauvenism in feminist clothing...