The thing about the Film Canon is that it’s mostly built by men. This is in some ways inevitable; most of the voices in film criticism are male. What’s more, most of the voices in online film discussion remain male. (If you want to know why, consider that literally not once has there been a “Hey, Ladies!” discussion in the Dissolve Facebook group that didn’t have a man break the rules so we could all hear what he thought.) It’s still awfully depressing, though, and so is the fact that the only way to get our voices heard is to find a Man Whisperer, one of those men who can hear women’s voices and repeat what they say to men.
I went to look up Dirty Dancing on IMDb to see if I consider it old enough to be a classic (yes), and typing in “dirt” brought up Joe Dirt 2 higher than Dirty Dancing. Now, I grant you that I do not understand IMDb’s system, less so now that they’ve started doing this stupid thing with video clips in your search results. But I’m pretty sure it’s based on how often people search, and I cannot believe I live in a world where more people search Joe Dirt 2 than Dirty Dancing. Frankly, I’m not thrilled at living in a world where people search for Joe Dirt 2, or even entirely where there is such thing as Joe Dirt 2.
Still. Dirty Dancing. In discussions not led by women, I actually think I hear Jaws: The Revenge, a movie universally acknowledged to be terrible, come up more often. Certainly Robocop, The Untouchables, Predator, and Full Metal Jacket. 1987 had some decent movies, and I genuinely believe Dirty Dancing to be in the top ten—along with The Princess Bride, which is both an action movie and a chick flick and its status as the one can be ignored in favour of the other when it suits. But how many top ten lists do either of them make? Even Roger of Sainted Memory put The Princess Bride in his also-ran list—and gave Dirty Dancing one star.
What he didn’t understand, because he couldn’t understand, was how much the movie spoke to us. Does the movie try to dodge the fact that Baby (Jennifer Grey) is Jewish and Johnny (Patrick Swayze) is a gentile? Yes. But he’s wrong to think there is no reason for Jake Houseman (Jerry Orbach) to believe that Johnny is the father when Dr. Houseman is begged to take care of Penny (Cynthia Rhodes) after her abortion. Johnny is a man who is there being supportive, which means he’s either a relative or the boyfriend; after all, we’ve been told for generations that men and women can’t be friends, right? Yet Baby is able to see that it isn’t true and to not worry about her boyfriend’s female friend, so maybe we can be okay that way, too.
These never-mentioned movies all tend to have seeds like that. Even When Harry Met Sally, one which emphasizes that belief, also shows us the power of groups of female friends, at least. The friends in that movie don’t fight and make you wonder if they’re really friends, and that’s something to latch onto. 10 Things I Hate About You (not old enough to be a classic!) has one genuine female friendship and one false one—and also has a lot to say about how powerful Image can be, both to you and to the people watching you.
A League of Their Own? Is about how sisters love and hate each other all at once. And how any group of women you connect to are like your sisters in some ways. What’s Love Got To Do With It? Is about how, yeah, even a strong woman sometimes takes a lot before she will actually walk away, and you don’t need to be ashamed of that. Kiki’s Delivery Service is about finding yourself and Muriel’s Wedding is about finding yourself and Pleasantville is about finding yourself—and finding pleasure, which is worthwhile even if you’re a middle aged woman. The Stepford Wives (the original) and Thelma and Louise are about how the world doesn’t want you to find yourself. Practical Magic and The Craft and The Witches of Eastwick are about the power of womanhood and how men have always found it a bit mystical. I could also argue that they’re about menstruation, but anyway.
Don’t get me wrong—women love movies in the regular Film Canon, too. Women love Citizen Kane and The Godfather and Lawrence of Arabia. Even the movies that I think of as “guy movies” have their female devotees—Cool Hand Luke and various Tarantino movies and GoodFellas. (Don’t blame me; that’s how it’s capitalized on the poster.) And if women are more sensitive to misogyny in film—I don’t think I’ve ever had to explain the misogyny of Nashville to another woman—that doesn’t mean that there aren’t women who love Woody Allen movies.
All that said, there’s a secret subculture of Women’s Movies, which is not the same as Chick Flicks even though there’s overlap. We pass the names on when we are talking without men, because we don’t want the conversation to be dominated by That Dude who wants to talk about how there’s this Don Siegel movie starring Clint Eastwood that totally belongs in the Women’s Canon.
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