It’s no secret that “chick flicks” are widely misunderstood as simply fodder for audiences of the teen girl persuasion. Historically, films that fall into this category (whether justified or not) are instantly saddled with the stigma of being shallow, simplistic, and more of a Friday-night frolic than a serious contender for awards season.
However, with the announcement of the 90th Academy Awards nominations, and Lady Bird sweeping the board with nods for Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actress and Supporting Actress, it’s suddenly becoming difficult to argue that these films are purely the shallow popcorn flicks that they’ve been made out to be.
If you look at the transition that the “chick flick” genre has gone through over the past few decades, it’s difficult to tell whether it’s the genre itself or audiences that have changed. Perhaps viewers are simply more open-minded towards this subgenre of films, which could be more accurately and generously described as teen coming-of-age dramas. For the release of Lady Bird on February 23rd, we’re going to explore how a genre that has previously been deemed only for the enjoyment of teenage girls has suddenly become a well-respected cornerstone of the medium.
You simply can’t discuss teen flicks without considering some of the more popular films of the ’90s and early 2000s. Remember 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), that classic romantic comedy whereby an extremely young Joseph Gordon-Levitt hires a dark and mysterious Heath Ledger to seduce Julia Styles so that he can date her vapid younger sister? It’s safe to say no one was merely “whelmed” by 10 Things. Based upon Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, this clever and sincere update caught the hearts and minds of all millennials with its close-to-the-bone comedy and shallow portrayal of American high schools, a formula that has always worked well within this particular genre. But would this film have quite the same impact today? Or is there no longer a place for this type of fun comedy that really is just a high-school love story?
Clueless (1995) follows a similar vein, with Alicia Silverstone portraying an equally shallow teenager, loosely based upon Jane Austen’s Emma. Despite our love for these particular flicks, it’s safe to say that none of them were particularly Oscar-worthy. Sure, they certainly portray more complex and profound themes than many naysayers would give them credit for. Clueless, for example, has a very clear satirical and self-deprecating edge, with Silverstone’s Cher constantly churning out lines such as “why learn to park when every place you go has a valet?” It soon becomes apparent that Cher is smart, strong and confident, a message that is important for every teenager to hear and aspire to. The film clearly has more depth than most audiences would give it credit for.
Although it’s clear that these films are smarter than they first appear, it’s hard to argue that they’re awards-worthy – that is, until we started to see gems such as The Edge of Seventeen (2016) hit our screens. Starring Hailee Steinfeld, Seventeen explores themes such as loss, grief, and depression, but in a dry, humorous and cutting fashion. In this way, it’s very difficult to compare the emotional issues raised in The Edge of Seventeen with the “hardships” portrayed in the likes of 10 Things I Hate About You.
It’s also worth mentioning that technology has completely changed the game when it comes to teen flicks, with one of the most cringe-worthy moments of Seventeen coming from a mis-sent (slightly psychopathic) text message. Teen films are now using technology, emojis and improvised humour to dramatic effect – another factor that makes them an incredibly articulate commentary on teenagers today. Arguably, Generation Z will have a much harder job navigating the world than we did – just imagine if they’d all had Tinder in Clueless. The whole plot probably would have been wrapped up pretty quickly, but there’s no doubt that there are significant psychological stresses that come with this constant communication. There’s a cost to technology, and it feels like these are effectively being portrayed in the “chick flicks” we’re now seeing enter the mainstream, and that this is something that will become inherent in the genre.
Aside from the technological aspect, the main difference we see in teen films today is that they no longer purely preoccupy themselves with the trials and tribulations of dating the high-school quarterback, and rather focus on the very real hardships of growing up and familial responsibility. The genre has changed, and teen films are now a vehicle to discuss the other issues that plague our society, which everyone is suddenly so hyper-aware of thanks to the rise of social media. These films are now becoming more of a mouthpiece for hot-button and extremely current topics, such as homophobia and women’s rights, in a way previously mostly reserved for “serious” “adult” films. Love, Simon, for example, due for release in 2018, follows the story of a young gay teenager as he navigates a high school where nobody knows that he is gay. And lest we forget Lady Bird (2017), a nostalgic and realistic portrayal of life as a teenager in early-noughties Sacramento.
The increase in these types of films within the genre shows a shift in what will be defined as a teen flick. Sure, we’re still going to be seeing the likes of Status Update (2018) as there will always be a market for this type of shallowness. But their audience is declining, and what people really want to see is smart and funny commentary on issues that people are increasingly socially aware of. In this respect, it’s not hard to see why these films are suddenly receiving critical acclaim and awards. They’re not just chick flicks, or coming-of-age comedies – they’re cutting social commentary.
With this in mind, it’s safe to say that it’s the content of these films that have changed, and become increasingly awards-worthy as the years have gone on. It seems concurrently that audiences have evolved, and are now after something deeper and more relatable. With the rise of social media and the constant media attention given to every little ailment in society, it becomes increasingly important for our films to portray these same qualities. Films have always amplified the social issues that concern us, and as this filters through to a wider range of releases and genres than ever, a larger range of film types are increasingly more likely to appeal to the Academy Award decision-makers.
“Chick flicks” are an ever-evolving genre, from the John Hughes comedies of the ’80s, to the somewhat heart-rending dramas of today. While they have always deserved our love and attention, we should brace ourselves for the fact that we’re likely going to be seeing a lot fewer films of the Clueless ilk, and more that portray the harshness of growing up in today’s society. Whether this is a positive thing in the long run remains to be seen, as there still needs to be a place for the lighter teen comedies. But for now, we’re going to watch in anticipation as Lady Bird sweeps up on March 4th.