Strictly Ballroom

A recent discussion about the fact it’s far more acceptable to have a much younger/better looking woman paired with a much older/unattractive man than the reverse had me racking my brains for an example of a better looking man being paired with a less attractive woman. I had to go back nearly twenty years, and it’s still quite a flawed example, but 1992 Australian movie Strictly Ballroom goes some way to rectifying the trope.

It’s very badly dated – all blinding pastel costumes, hair that holds itself up and Baz Luhrmann before they gave him big budgets to play with – but follows the story of rising ballroom dancing star Scott Hastings (Paul Mecurio) who causes havoc with his insistence on dancing new, innovative steps. After he humiliates his partner Liz (Gia Carides) at a dance competition, she ditches him for a more conservative dancer. Enter Fran (Tara Morice) who wants to dance with Scott using his moves. Fran isn’t as attractive as Scott, starting out in frumpy clothes, thick glasses and bad acne. Admittedly, though, one of the issues I have with the movie is that when Scott takes her on as a partner, her looks improve in the form of nice clothes and hair and make-up improvements. I could buy that this improvement came as a result of increased confidence, though a little explanation into that wouldn’t have gone astray. Even so, it’s an improvement on the trope of ‘ugly girl takes off her glasses, unties her hair, and voila, absolute stunner – Morice, while more attractive than she appears in the movie, is not what I’d call gorgeous. There’s also a nice moment between Fran and her grandmother about how confidence can create a beauty of its own. And hey, when she cries, she looks puffy and swollen, not that tragically beautiful look that’s so popular when the heroine cries.

Naturally, his family disapproves of the plainer-looking Fran – whose has some kind of ethnic background, Spanish I suspect – encouraging him to dance his own steps when he could have a flashy blonde dancing more traditional steps. But Scott stays adamant, even oblivious to the idea of returning to a more traditional partner, in order to dance with Fran. Outrage from friends, family and dance officials ensues but Scott sticks to his guns.

As far as the Bechdel test goes – there’s plenty of interaction between Fran, her grandmother, Scott’s mum Shirley, Liz and a new partner Scott’s parents are trying to set him up with, Tina, although most of it is to do with how Fran isn’t good enough for Scott. I’m inclined to semi-passĀ  it on the grounds that the women’s interactions are over a man, but in a largely professional rather than romantic sense.

So Scott and Fran go to the Grand Pacific Grande Prix and are immediately disqualified by the competition-fixing judge Barry Fife, who has an axe to grind against Scott and his non-traditional moves. The music is unplugged. Scott’s father starts to clap to create a rhythm and pretty soon, everyone’s joining in and Scott and Fran continue with their dance, which culminates in a kiss, while Barry, Liz, Tina, et al, look on, outraged in being out-maneuvered. (Either that ‘find the rhythm in your heart’ trope has been copied to death in the last twenty years, or my single-digit-aged self was far more easily impressed, because watching it in 2010, it was laughably cliched, if effective at getting its point across.) Oh, and I liked that Fran’s transformation didn’t include wearing a skimpy, blindingly pastel costume in line with the other female dancers; she wears an ethnic, flamenco-style dress that suited both her figure and dance moves better than a more traditional ballroom dancing costume.

Strictly Ballroom has its flaws. It’s mostly about Scott’s journey, although in all fairness, I felt Fran was far more fleshed out than most ‘women as plot device’ characters are. It’s difficult to gauge how cliched it is – was it a cliche at the time, or did its popularity spawn twenty years of copycats? – but, watching it in 2010, it did feel embarrassingly done-to-death. And most of the women fall under the category of ‘them bleached-blond bitches’. But for all that, you have a strong-willed woman in Fran who finds a balance between her family, her love for dance and Scott and who isn’t the Rachel-Leigh Cook-type ‘ugly duckling’ who turns into a swan by the simple subtraction of her glasses and addition of a sexy red dress. (Though I wouldn’t turn down Fran’s sexy red dress.)


  1. Gnatalby says

    I don’t think you should grant a partial pass on the basis that they were talking about a man in a professional sense.

    The Bechdel test isn’t to test for heteronormativity, it’s there to see whether women advance the plot along. Talking about how a dude is advancing the plot still demonstrates that women are not actively participants, but objects.

    • Casey says

      Oh man, I think we had a MASSIVE discussion about the technicalities of the Bechdel test in a blog post about it a month or so ago?

    • scarlett says

      Yeah that’s why I said SB is very flawed. And I think the concept of the Bechdel test, while a good idea fundementally, can’t be held up as a tried-and-true method: what if you had a movie about two women who are resistance fighters in WWII who spend the entire movie talking about how to assassinate Hitler? What mainly impressed me about this movie was, as I said, that despite its flaws, Mecurio is way better looking that Morice, and that’s not really commented on. (Yes, she’s called drab and such, but not ugly.)

    • Alara Rogers says

      I think there’s a *big* difference between talking about a man as part of your job and talking about a man in a romantic sense, in terms of what the Bechdel test is trying to get at.

      A man as part of your job could be an object. He doesn’t have to be advancing the plot as a person; he could be a McGuffin. I mean, in film noir, if the PI is hired by a woman to find her sister, the sister is not advancing the plot as a person; she’s an object the plot revolves around. The *subject* is still the PI. If a female PI is hired by a woman to find her brother, and she reports in regularly to her client about her search for the brother, it’s totally a Bechdel pass.

  2. says

    I saw this movie in the cinemas when I was about 14, and in country Australia. I’ve seen it many times since too.

    I thought the pastels and high hair had as much to do with the industry of ballroom dancing at the time as Baz Luhrmann’s directing – there are pretty spectacular costumes in that sport.
    And I think it was the Pan Pac Grand Prix (includes Japan and the US with the ‘Pacific’ countries). So, you can see I have some affection for the movie (PanPac Scarlett! jeez!), even though I don’t think it was brilliant. Still, phrases like “non-federation” and “oh Fran” echoed for a long time in Aussie conversations.

    Maybe I was a bit young when I saw the film, but I never interpreted the Hastings family’s disapproval of Fran related particularly to her heritage; since Scott seemed to have no idea she was Spanish I assumed she’d kept it from everyone (and up till the end no one else knew they had a Spanish dance planned). This by itself suggests she feels her heritage would be unpopular in that White-Australia dance studio, which would have been a good assumption.
    I knew her ‘plainness’ contributed, but I got the impression that mainly she just wasn’t going to be a good enough dancer for him (note, not ‘them’) to win, and winning was apparently the most important thing.

    Regarding the Bechdel, its true that Fran and Mrs Hastings talk about Scott when they chat, so I can’t pass it on that mark either. But Fran and her nan talk abut her mum – all of a sentence and a half – a slim pass.
    However, Mrs Hastings does progress the plot (she is quite manipulative, an influential character) in order for her goal to be achieved – and it is her goal, not Scott’s, or even his father’s – which is to have her son win.

    Even though the main plot is Scott’s battle to be independent/creative/authentic in his chosen career, I never thought it was as compelling or as well done as Fran’s battle against the ‘type’ promoted in this dance community – the meanness of the women, the matriarchy of Mrs Hastings, the subtleness of the women bullying her and how she so accurately felt it. The story was also supposed to be about two people who were controlled by everyone else. But in the end Scott was the only one who got free – Fran didn’t have the choices he had, she was still at the mercy of his decisions.

  3. M.C. says

    The only other ‘ugly woman with hot guy’ couple I can think of is Miranda Bailey and her boyfriend in season 6 of Grey’s Anatomy.
    I know, I know, Chandra Wilson isn’t ugly. But she’s short and not thin, which is ugly by Hollywood-standards. And yet they paired her with the super hot anesthesiologist Ben.

    • Attackfish says

      There’s also fan-favorite couple on Criminal Minds, Garcia and Morgan. Garcia is a pretty but plump geeky genius computer tech, and Morgan is an honorable, caring, serious, brilliant, smoking hot FBI agent. They aren’t dating in the show but they flirt like you wouldn’t believe, and the ship tease is strong with this pair. This couple shows that viewers at least aren’t adverse to that kind of matchup.

      • Robin says

        I adore Garcia and Morgan’s relationship, especially since it’s survived romantic entanglements on both sides. They’re really good for each other as pals, and even though the physical attraction seems to be one-sided, at least Morgan has come to realize that other men do find her attractive. (While she’s not “Hollywood hot”, I think Kirsten Vangness is gorgeous.)

        I also love the big sister relationship Garcia’s developed with Reid. While they’re not remotely the same kinds of nerds, they have mutual nerd respect that’s really endearing.

        • Attackfish says

          Exactly. Even when they’re dating other people, they’re such good friends and work so well together. Clearly a strong mutual bond.

          Aw, I think he wants her, he just doesn’t want to admit it. He gets so jealous and pretends that isn’t what it is.

          And I love for once in a nerd friend pair, it’s the girl who’s into tech, and the guy who’s into the social sciences. Seriously, makes me happy.

          And she is gorgeous. Finding out that she’s gay and married broke my brother’s heart. (The first part just gave me hope.)

  4. Watamama says

    Great discussion. I saw this movie by accident, flipping through stations at a hotel during a road trip. Absolutely loved it and laughed throughout. Baz L is a heck of a director with or without a budget, and the film made me interested in at least looking up the history of ballroom dancing, since I was certain there were many nuances and insider jokes I’d missed not being familiar with that world. The characters’ focus on getting it right and being original was something that spoke to me at that time. I’d noticed the ‘pan’ diversity mentioned by a previous post, and figured Fran’s ‘ethnicity’ had a significant reading for viewers in that context. For me, it was her lack of experience, being a complete novice in the other dancers’ eyes is what mostly made her an unlikely partner. Now you all have reminded to find this movie again and add it to my personal collection. Would really appreciate suggestions for other similar comedies, especially those exploring the arts.

  5. Keely says

    Don’t forget Dirty Dancing. I actually think Jennifer Gray was adorable before the nose job, but she certainly wasn’t conventionally pretty the way Patrick Swayze was.

  6. says

    Late – so late! I was catching up on posts – but I always loved “Muriel’s Wedding”. Also, every John Waters film, but especially “Hairspray”. There’s also “Persuasion” and Emma Thompson paired with Hugh Grant in “Sense and Sensibility” (Emma is a lovely woman, but not conventionally so).

    I don’t know if those count for what you’re looking at, though, since they’re all the same age as the men (but not substantially younger – which always creeps me out, especially Jack Nicholson and whichever poor woman has been cast as his “love” interest) (Also Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich in “Fifth Element”).

    • Gabriella says

      OMG, I can’t BELIEVE I forgot Muriel’s Wedding. Yeah, South African swimmer guy is super-hot whereas even when NOT dumpy and frumpy, Toni Collette is hardly DDG. And it’s an interesting example because Muriel essentially entered a visa marriage to have a gorgeous husband to flaunt around – you NEVER see that kind of superficial criteria for women in film and television.

      • Gabriella says

        Sorry meaning that you never see women having a criteria of ‘must be gorgeous’ with everything else being secondary. It’s a freaking running gag on shows like Two and a Half Men to have Charlie and Alan chase after Hollywood-glamorous women with nothing else to recomend for them (like personality or ability to support themselves) but not for a woman to say ‘I want a gorgeous-husband-status-symbol and to hell with anything else’.

    • says

      Sense and Sensibility is a good example, because its not even remarked upon. Not all THAT many films even with man < woman ratio can claim that, there's always at least a slow-motion walk.
      But really, Hugh Grant has a pretty good track record. Going on the assumption that Hugh is pretty high on the scale, and ignoring Notting Hill for obvious reasons, but there is
      Two Weeks Notice: Sandra Bullock is at the very best on par, and this is a hard-nosed role.
      Music and Lyrics: Hard to say. Drew Barrymore is no dog, but she's always sat in the girl next door rather then screen siren. Then again, she's 15 years younger, but then AGAIN he's a pop star in this….Tie.
      Did You Hear about the Morgans?: ace in the hole, Sarah Jessica Parker, on a farm, and he's trying to win her back the entire movie.
      Four Weddings: Ignoring the modeling career, Andie McDowell is nothign special. She fits in with James Spader and Bill Murray, sure, but this is Mickey Blue Eyes…speaking of which….
      Mickey Blue Eyes: Jeanne Bloody Triplehorn
      Bridget Jones: Controversial because he;s a player, but Renne Zellweger is meant to be dowdy as all shit, as is to a certian extent Colin 'Darcy Kings Speecg' Firth, so thats at least even AND Hugh's bastard gives it another go in the sequel so….
      About a Boy: scratch that one, I thought it was Toni Collete, but of course Rachel Weiz
      9 Monthes: Julian Moore? What do you reckon, thats a partial credit. I mean, she's pregnant and he dreams she eats his head off?
      Love Actually: Now, Martine McCutcheon is hot as hell, but he's the prime minister!
      Extreme Measures: Never seen it, but Sarah Jessica Parker again, even appearing along side her is enough.
      Actually, pretty much any beu Carrie Bradshaw has. Miranda and Charlotte don't do well, but Samatha is raking them in!

  7. says

    Howl’s Moving Castle deals primarily with a beautiful man, Howl, falling in love with the plain Sophie. Sophie gets transformed into an old woman for much of the film, and he falls for her during that time, even!

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