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-pass 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.)