Melissa Silverstein of Women And Hollywood recently wrote a piece for Women’s Media Center called Pondering the Chick Flick. It’s a great read that explores the history of the chick flick up to now, describes the frustrating dichotomy in which “chick flicks” often promote women filmmakers (yay!) while encouraging regressive sexist values (boo!), and suggests thinking beyond the labels.
One particular part of Melissa’s post struck a chord with me, and I want to expand on it just a bit:
Fast-forward to the late 70s and early 80s when feminism was saturating the cultural landscape of the country and, for a brief moment, also penetrating Hollywood as women moved into powerful positions behind the scenes. The films of that period show some of the strongest, most feminist women ever seen onscreen and displayed the depth and range of the rising female consciousness. These films—including Julia, Norma Rae, An Unmarried Woman, Silkwood, 9 to 5, My Brilliant Career, Yentl, Places in the Heart, Out of Africa, The Color Purple, Children of a Lesser God, Desert Hearts— relayed women’s stories as important and valid to the culture and often appealed to men as well. But just like the women’s film flamed out, by the late 1980s, feminist films began to disappear as the blockbuster mentality grew in combination with the “backlash” documented by Susan Faludi. Since that time women have slowly and steadily been losing clout onscreen in a disturbing way that belies their behind-the-scenes power positions.
We’ve discussed before on this site about how women are not slowly making progress in film and TV but are, in fact, merely recovering ground we lost in recent years. Melissa offers the “blockbuster mentality” and the “backlash” Susan Falludi wrote about as an explanation for why that’s happening. This is absolutely correct. As far as the backlash goes, you really need to read Susan Falludi’s Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women if you haven’t already. Falludi is one of those rare writers who can distill history into a simple chain of actions, consequences, reactions and more consequences, and in this book, she documents how a few powerful people deliberately attacked the gains made by women through the early 80s with a campaign of media spin, fear mongering, and outright lies. I’d love to try to sum up the book for you, but I can’t. It really has to be read.
The blockbuster mentality, however, is something I was thinking about just last week.The film industry used to be run by filmmakers who’d been promoted from within. At some point in the late 70s or early 80s, these folks started getting replaced en masse by people who had MBAs and business experience but no particular love for nor understanding of films. Film hadn’t been doing so well in terms of profiting (neither had anything else – look up the late 70s and early 80s sometime), and this was cited as a reason for change.
The people who came in quickly diagnosed the “problem” – those silly filmmakers wanted to make artsy-fartsy stuff the audience was too stupid to understand. Only MBAs really understood the audience and just how dull-witted a collection of Homer Simpsons it was. The MBAs immediately set about impressing themselves with their own fabulous reports and demographics and spreadsheets, and engaging in ferocious dick-measuring contests anytime two or more of them wound up in a room or on a conference call together. I can say that without fear of being sexist, because there was nary a woman in sight.
It was also around this time that the new breed of film executives allegedly “figured out” something no one has ever found a shred of evidence to back up: that the best audience is white teenage boys. Hey, go figure! Was it just a coincidence that as soon as film got taken over by a group containing more than its fair share of emotionally stunted man-boys who functioned at a pre-teen mentality, they suddenly discovered that movies really should only be made for teenage boys? Probably not. We humans are not as objective as we like to think. Spreadsheets and computers give us the delusion that we’re not steering the Ouija planchette when we put our hands on it, but the irony here is just delicious: early film executives guessed what the audience wanted, based on their own desires, because they loved movies just like the audience did. The MBAs thought they could totally take their own desires out of the equation and be perfectly objective, but in reality, they just projected themselves into the audience so hard that all the people who weren’t teenage boys stopped existing for them. At least the early filmmakers understood that women shopped with real money and stuff. It takes a very special kind of brain warp to lose sight of a fact like that while making six movies a year about women shopping.