A film critic takes aim at the poor diet of female role models we have been fed.
How do the “girls” in pop culture influence the women we become? This is the question the former LA Times film critic Carina Chocano takes on in her study of how women have been portrayed in the media over the past four or five decades.
Although it’s billed as “part memoir”, You Play the Girl doesn’t, in fact, contain many personal details. Instead, Chocano, who wrote the book after becoming concerned about the role models that were influencing her daughter Kira, uses her own life as a way of analysing the fictional women who affected her coming-of-age. The result takes in everything from the dumb Bunnies that she saw as a child in her grandfather’s copies of Playboy; via Bewitched’s Samantha, who has her magical powers suppressed by her husband; to Flashdance, Pretty Woman, and Chocano’s more recent frustration with the self-imposed limits of Amy Schumer’s film Trainwreck.
You can’t fault much of her snappy criticism. At her best, Chocano draws out brilliant insights from across the decades — exploring, for example, how The Stepford Wives morphed into Desperate Housewives, then into modern reality shows such as The Real Housewives and The Bachelor.
Her essays are generally witty and sharp, too, and she weaves her observations into a fascinating history of women’s economic and social progress. But, natty as the writing is, at times it can all feel a bit predictable. Is there anybody, for instance, who doesn’t know by now that Hollywood has a woman problem? Who didn’t realise that the women in Playboy were objectified, or that Eat Pray Love is a terrible film?
In particular, Chocano never satisfactorily addresses what seems to be a blind spot: the fact that some women still find their idols in pop culture’s girls, despite their obvious flaws. At one point, she finds herself watching Pretty Woman with several women who are enjoying the film. Chocano is not, and she explains that she couldn’t sit back and enjoy it because she “couldn’t un-see the message of Pretty Woman. I couldn’t un-know what I knew.”
This is remarkably patronising. Her assumption is that whatever she knows about Pretty Woman, the women enjoying it don’t. I think she is wrong. I suspect that many women see the same sexism that she does, but deliberately choose a different reading. Whatever a film’s “official” message, and however sexist its characters and reductive its plot, most women are more than capable of skimming the details and enjoying a chick-flick just for fun, or even reshaping a character’s qualities into an acceptable role model. Such alternative readings are especially easy in an age where we dissect shows and films on Twitter as we watch.