Chick Flicks and Their Dick Politics
By Renée Proctor
What exactly do the male characters of “female oriented” cinema tell us about men? The chick flick genre sets out to comfort the female sex by appealing to our purportedly natural frustrations and fantasies. And while that is problematic enough in its own right, it is also important to understand what type of man is idolized and romanticized in chick flicks. In our moment, one of the prototypical and most popular versions of the ideal chick flick man is the “Nicholas Sparks Man.” The “Nicholas Sparks Man” is also well known for a rather uncomfortable problem for male moviegoers: he sets the bar seemingly very high for the average man. But what is most problematic about the “Nicholas Sparks Man” is his consistently limited portrayal of masculinity. In fact, this limited version of masculinity has a dark double. It is logically connected to its dangerous and toxic other: Neomasculinity. By examining the similarity between Neomasculinity and Nicholas Sparks masculinity, we are able to better understand the effect that the popularity of the “Nicholas Sparks Man” has on our societal understanding of masculinity.
In an interview for GQ magazine in 2014, Nicholas Sparks pitched this to male moviegoers in an attempt to market the latest movie adaptation of one of his novels: “…set aside a date night and take your girlfriend or your wife. Trust me. She’s going to love it – and love you for taking her.”[i] No doubt, Sparks's pitch is a clever ploy to appeal to the male audience beyond just the female demographic at whom his content aimed. But this simple pitch brings with it some complicated gender politics. It assumes that his content is naturally appealing to women (because they are women) and not appealing to men (because they are men). It in turn also assumes that the only reason that a man will see the movie is out of a sense of duty and obligation to making the women in his life happy. Because apparently that’s what men do. Sparks novels understand themselves as chick books that are naturally being turned into chick flicks. If one looks up the words chick flick, one encounters a sudden outpouring of recommendations of films that “appeal mainly to women.”[ii] Among the most frequently recurring recommendations is the 2004 adaptation of Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook. This movie has been universally accepted as, “the standard by which all romance films are judged in popular America since it was released.”[iii] Since 2004, there have been an additional eight filmic adaptations of Sparks's work, along with grossing over “740 million world wide”[iv] there is no denying his content’s pop cultural relevance. A key feature of Sparks’s cultural relevance is the reputation his books and films have for setting the “bar for romantic behaviour impossibly high.”[v] This seems to be the common complaint around Sparks films, particularly because they are thought to raise the expectations of female audiences for their male counterparts to an unattainable level. Women, in turn, seemingly have to settle for just being taken to the movie, which, of course, suits Sparks all the better. But what is problematic about the influence and reach of Spark’s films is not necessarily the height of the expectations but the type of expectations: the type of expectation that the recurrence of a very specific and formulaic Sparks’ male hero sets for the pop cultural audience that extends beyond just those who physically see the movies.
Defining the Chick Flick
Nicholas Sparks has been hailed as the “king of the chick flick”[vi] but what does that even mean? Melissa Silverstein in an article for the Huffington Post titled “Pondering the chick flick” observes that, “ a mere mention of the term [chick flick] can send you into a lather bemoaning the disparagement that the entire genre has wrought on womankind.”[vii] Continuing on to say that she finds “the current offerings are especially troublesome.” So then what does Silverstein define as a chick flick? The chick flick is an evolution of a genre of film known as the “woman’s film”[viii] that came out of the 1950’s. Film historian Jeanine Basinger describes the woman’s film as, “a movie that places at the center of its universe a female character who is trying to deal with emotional, social and psychological problems that are specifically connected to the fact that she is a woman.”[ix] So by this account the content of a “woman’s film” and what evolves and branches off to become the chick flick should serve as a good indication of the issues and problems that affect specifically the female gender. According to how society at that point in time understood womankind. Hilary Radner in the Routledge Companion to Cinema and Gender explains the shift in the terminology of “woman’s film” as the “parallel transformation in the preoccupations of these films.”[x] Meaning that terms like “chick flick,” which have branched off from the original “woman’s film,” are not static, they evolve as society’s understanding of gender evolves. The term “chick flick” was initially used to specifically discuss the female friendship films that became popular in the 1990s. And so some may tend to distinguish the “chick flick” as only intended to refer to the female friendship film.
However as time has gone on the term “chick flick” has evolved in “scope and range”[xi] but what remains the same is, “that they primarily address a female audience and are concerned with guiding a woman towards a path of self-fulfillment.”[xii] This range has come to include, “romances and adaptations.”[xiii] This is significant because the inclusion of other distinct genres like romance under the term “chick flick” automatically attaches an understanding of romance as a female problem. An understanding Radner notes by stating that, “the romantic drama…has long been a narrative form associated with predominantly female audience; however unlike the woman’s film the genre places a couple, rather than a single woman, at the apex of its story.”[xiv] This inclusion of a partner is part of the evolution of the “chick flick “away from the woman’s film. Because “the chick flick mirrored the woman’s film…in regards to its emphasis on a woman around whose concerns the narrative revolves, and its return to marriage and heterosexuality as offering the norms that govern all relationships.”[xv]
When Silverstein claims that the term chick flick incites “bemoaning” or “disparaging” reactions from women, one wonders if she is referring to the chick flick that tends to include only female friendship films and films with a singular central female character, or the chick flick that has come to include any genre that is intended to appeal to women, like the romance film. I believe it is the latter, because there is much about the portrayal of gender, both male and female, in the romantic subset of the chick flick genre that makes it an object worth discussing. And why Silverstein would not be wrong to claim that the “current offerings” of romantic chick flicks “are especially troublesome.”
Silverstein’s assessment of the “current offerings” of chick flicks, some of the most popular being the adaptations of Nicholas Sparks, as “troublesome” is arguably because of the way that these films present gender. Now the focus of this project is seemingly counterintuitive as I seek to examine the representation of men in female oriented cinema. This does not by any means intend to assume that the representation of women in these films is without problems, because they are not. I merely find it interesting that it is in this genre of “chick flick” specifically those of the Nicholas Sparks brand do we find some of the most problematic and persistent representations of masculinity. Coupled with the popularity and pop cultural status of specifically The Notebook but also the rest of Sparks’ fare, it indicates a popular consensus that deems that after eleven films many see no concern over the portrayal of gender. But instead his target audience sees the genre as “escapism…an expression of frustration with a world that’s increasingly difficult for women – and men – to safely navigate”[xvi]. Let us then explore what is problematic about Spark’s representation of gender – focusing specifically on men - and how it compares to an extremist version of toxic male gender representation – Neo-masculinity. In order to do so we should first understand why pop culture and in this case cinema is an important object to discuss male gender representation.
Pop culture/ Media effects on Gender
Popular culture, specifically in this case cinema, offers “more than just a source of entertainment, mainstream media are powerful communicators of cultural norms and values that define the world and legitimize the social order”[xvii] So these Sparks films that have “grossed more than 740 million world wide” are more than just “corny lady centric programming.”[xviii] They set cultural precedent not only about what a man should look and behave like but what the idealized man should look and behave like. Because as is common amongst viewers and reviewers of chick flick content, other male protagonists and love interests get “graded by how they stack up to Noah in The Notebook, obviously.”[xix] But the cultural precedent that Noah from The Notebook sets up for viewers is one that “reinforce[s] rigid views about masculinity.”[xx] And this is not unique to The Notebook, the force behind Nicholas Sparks’ version of masculinity comes from the consistent and formulaic presentation of his male characters across eleven films, Noah is just the most popular example. So what exactly is the Nicholas Sparks man?
The Nicholas Sparks Man
An article in the Washington Post mocked that a primary indicator of a Nicholas Sparks’ film is to ask whether the, “love story feature[s] a manly man with a manly job that belies his sensitive/ artsy streak”[xxi] if the answer is yes then it’s a Sparks film. How, then, does Sparks define a “manly man?” What is a “manly job?” According to a post on Buzzfeed.com which was entirely dedicated to breaking down the formulaic features of Nicholas Sparks films, one of the first noticeable features of the Sparks “manly man” is that, “it is in stark contrast to one of the leading protagonists of popular American cinema: The Judd Apatow Man-Child.”[xxii] The appeal of a Sparks character is that it opposes the modern turn towards “man-child” male protagonist in more recent romantic comedies and stands to represent a more functional and less dependent version of masculinity that appears to have more romantic appeal based on the difference in tone between Apatow’s films and Sparks’s films.
The next signature feature is that the “Nicholas Sparks man is rugged and good with his hands.”[xxiii] This is consistent throughout the eleven films and relates to the initial comment from the Washington Post about a Nicholas Sparks man needing to have a “manly job.” Many of the male characters have jobs that require manual labour such as the lower class Noah in The Notebook who not only worked in a lumber yard but also built his and McAdams’ character Allie’s dream home with his bare hands. As well as the Luke Collins character in 2015’s The Longest Ride who is a professional bullrider and ranch hand. But even those whose profession is not labour intensive find themselves to be handy, such as Josh Duhammel’s character in 2013’s Safe Haven who owns a convenience store but uses his “manly” know how to fix up a broken bike to woo his lady. As well as Channing Tatum’s character who helps his love interest build a home for charity. Part of Sparks’ interest in having his male characters appear consistently as handy or “rugged” is a seeming dislike for all that is associated with urban or consumerist life. Most of his male protagonists come from middle or lower class families and even those that don’t, such as Liam Hemsworth’s Will in 2010’s The Last Song, reject their affluence by having jobs and hobbies that include such hands on activities like cleaning an aquarium tank. This comes from Sparks’s preference for non-urban, non upperclass characters also shows through his choices of settings. All his stories are placed in consistently rural or coastal, typically American South towns. Any mention of urban life or upper class lifestyle only seem to come up as reasons for having driven his characters to seek refuge in these picturesque rural areas or as reasons for their personal pain. This additionally creates an intentional “fairy tale timelessness”[xxiv] to his content. One of the most interesting examples of both Sparks apparent distaste for urban, upper class lifestyle comes through the comparison of James Marsden characters in The Notebook and The Best of Me. Marsden is one of – if not the only - actor to play a significant role in two Sparks films, in 2004 he played McAdam’s alternative love interest Lon Hammond Jr. A wealthy southern gentleman who directly contradicts the lower class rugged Noah. In The Notebook Marsden’s character loses out on the girl he loves as she chooses the rugged Noah over him. This is however reversed when Marsden takes on a different male type in 2014’s The Best of Me where he plays the adult version of an abused white trash teenager who becomes a ruggedly handsome engineer. He ultimately wins over his love interest the adult Amanda, who favours Marsden over her wealthy but alcoholic lawyer husband. Marsden, who because of his transition from playing the wealthy but rejected suitor to the primary Sparks male protagonist, serves as a point of reference to note the differentiating qualities of the male protagonist – main love interest – compared to other men in the story. Thus identifying Sparks’s preference for articulating the masculinity of his leads through humble origins, occupations or hobbies.
This preference also manifests itself through Sparks’s tendency to have his leads occupied in the military either as a conflict that is part of the story or to “tend the smitten stars some extra testosterone by thrusting them into military gear.”[xxv] This is actually quite a significant pattern as a total of five of his films contain significant military plot lines that have one of the major male characters as soldiers for a time. In two of his films– Dear John and The Lucky One – the military contributes significantly to the lead’s masculinity and character. Not only do these physical occupations instill a sense of traditional masculinity in these characters by the nature of the work but by the physique and aesthetic that such work demands from actors who will be needed to play them. Nicholas Sparks’ films are notoriously well known for their apt to choose either up and coming white male physical specimen or have dashing seasoned actors play the more mature roles. Either way, one of the few “ironclad rules”[xxvi] of the Sparksian man is that “if you’re a man you have squared shoulders and muscles that reflect your belief in a hard days work.”[xxvii] There is a need for Sparks’s characters to have these types of occupations in order to justify their aesthetically pleasing physique that is intended to make heterosexual female audience members swoon. Rather than have them be physically appealing as a result of vanity which according to Sparks's logic would be too feminine. Aside from ascribing masculinity to his characters by having them adhere to either iconically masculine occupations like soldier, or cowboy or having them be hands on, fix it types there is more to the Sparksian man:
Some of these men are single dads [Safe Haven], others are kind to single moms [The Lucky One]. All of them want to be made whole and make others whole in return…They don’t swear or lose their tempers. They’re real men, and real men don’t speak much. Instead they communicate through acts…They live simple lives; all they lack, really is the Sparks Woman.[xxviii]
What this outline of inherent qualities of the Nicholas Sparks man does for our purposes of better understanding the films’ representation of masculinity, is that it shows how the formulaic Sparksian male falls in line with the concept of hegemonic masculinity. Hegemonic masculinity is defined as the, “embodiment of traditional and stereotypical masculine norms and values… hegemonic masculinity is a complex and culturally bound concept.”[xxix] Values and norms such as the “rugged” aesthetic or the military or “manly” occupations have a negative effect on the societal understanding of masculinity. While it is not degenerate or violent, portraying men as savage on the contrary these men are quite emotional and vulnerable in comparison to other male cinematic icons of the current moment. Not excusing however Sparks’ apparent need to restore, “his male characters some manhood, the masculinity that’s lost within all the countless professions of love.”[xxx] So while on the one hand the dedication and emotion displayed by the men in Sparks’ films it is still not accounting for the fact that they consistently adhere to traditionally “masculine” activities and behaviors in order to counter act the potentially overly feminizing effect that displaying emotions might have on their appearance. This adherence to masculine traits in order to justify emotional vulnerability on screen asserts that emotions aren’t masculine. Which is not a progressive perspective at all, in fact it is down right traditional. And so what is problematic about having this reflected in content that is as consistently popular as the Nicholas Sparks’ films is that it comes to represent an assumed cultural norm. Coupled with the fact that these films aren’t believed to represent the norm but rather the female fantasy you have a pressure on real world men to try and carry on these traits. Which limits the ways in which they feel they can express their masculinity. As Andrew Corsello observed in an interview with Nicholas Sparks, men, “increasingly have their manhoods measured and molded by Nicholas Sparks and the code of morality.”[xxxi] Not surprising when we consider that cinema is a “powerful communicator of cultural norms”[xxxii].
So what, then, is most problematic about the representation of masculinity in Nicholas Sparks’ films is that it is not only limiting but appears to arise as a, “coping mechanism and an expression of frustration with a world that is increasingly difficult for women- and men – to safely navigate.”[xxxiii] Arising out of a similar frustration but with a vastly different effect is the Neomasculinity movement. A movement that is mostly scattered and incoherent. However its most organized articulation of the premise of Neomasculinity can found on a pair of sites, returnofkings and rooshv. These two blogs additionally contain a variety of articles with content aimed toward the “neomasculine male.” Articles range in focus from, “5 Reasons Why You Should Build Your Own House” (a la The Notebook) to “Do Not Have Sex With Feminists.”[xxxiv] The articles on these sites range in crudeness and vulgarity, many of which further confuse what the common beliefs are of so called “neomasculinists”. Most of the information however appears to be favorable to the white middle to lower class, Christian American male, as most other identities get bashed in some way or another. Neo-masculinity is defined in the rooshv.com article “What is Neomasculinity” and the returnofkings.com article (which appears to build off the first) “The Origins of Neomasculinity.” By RooshV’s standard a large part of Neo-masculinity is reliant on “Game” theory, which is the “response to signals that women in any environment are displaying,”[xxxv] game theory appears to be a series of strategies and approaches in order to improve a man’s chances of having sexual relations with a woman. RooshV’s article appears to identify the need for “Game” theory in order to increase the average male’s “sexual market value.” The interesting thing here is that for an ideology dedicated to redefining masculinity much of the definition of masculinity appears to be done in terms of women. Crudely in how to manipulate and “score” women, it is still however no more independent. Where Neomasculinity appears to contradict itself though is in its understanding of the male relationship to women. On the one hand in the “What is Neomasculinity” article rooshv claims that “sexual moderation” is a key component of Neomasculinity and yet on another separate page titled “How to be a Man” one of the first ways is to “Fuck 25 girls”[xxxvi]. This kind of crass and violently objectifying perspective on women is what distinctly separates Neomasculine understanding of masculinity from the Nicholas Sparks version. There is however some overlap. Other characteristics identified by RooshV as being central to the Neomasculine ideology are things like, “Self-Improvement” which include things like “fitness, responsibility, work ethic, independence.” Others include a prioritization of the “nuclear family,” adherence to the “binary sex model” and “technological skepticism.” It’s these qualities that overlap between the Sparks film and this extremist doctrine. Essentially the claim behind Neomasculinity is that it looks to “employ new methods to achieve old aims…Neomasculinity is a corrective movement.” (Return of Kings) And it’s this nostalgia for a past that supposedly contained all these qualities that makes Neo-masculinity and Nicholas Sparks masculinity comparable.
The nostalgia mode that Frederic Jameson discusses in his article Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism is applicable to both neo-masculine and Nicholas Sparks’s renderings of masculinity. As both are basing their ideals out of an illusionary past. Best example in the case of Nicholas Sparks is the male lead Luke Collins played by Scott Eastwood in 2015’s The Longest Ride. Here the central attraction to Luke from his love interest Sophia is that he is “old school.”[xxxvii] Sophia then spends much of the film trying to “get used to his Southern gentlemanly ways” of which include an insistence that Sophia not buy him a drink because it “doesn’t work like that where I’m from.”[xxxviii] The essential attraction of their romance is Luke’s “old school ways” especially as they appear to be amiss in the more urban setting of Sophia’s Southern University, especially amongst the “other guys”[xxxix] meaning those found at her more urban university. The Longest Ride in particular is filled with subtle denouncements of the modern/ urban society, favouring quite shamelessly the rural, “old fashion” and automatically more traditionally masculine version of a man than his disappointing modern counterpart. It’s as though Sparks’ took all the attractive masculine qualities that were in other films – like The Notebook – justified by the setting and time period, placed them in the character of Luke and positioned him in the modern era to demonstrate that traditional masculinity is more attractive than its modern, more urbanized and assumedly more “feminized” counterpart. The predominant difference then between the Nicholas Sparks man and Neomasculinity is not their “frustration” with the modern world but in their valuation of women.
This difference can effectively be summed up in two definitions, hostile sexism and benevolent sexism. Neomasculinity can be considered as a version “hostile sexism” as hostile sexism, “reflects subjectively negative views of women…and serves to objectify women and reduce them to tools rather than elevate their agency”[xl] (Altenburger). The Nicholas Sparks version appears as “benevolent sexism” meaning that its understanding of masculinity stands in opposition to hostile sexism, as it reflects subjectively positive views of women (women are wonderful creatures who should be cherished and protected by men, men are not completed without the love of a woman). This definition seems to capture the spirit of the Nicholas Sparks man better than its counter part hostile sexism, subsequently pointing out that it is the differing perspectives on women that distinguish the two versions of masculinity. So what is then exceptionally interesting about finding so much cross over between Nicholas Sparks man and the neo-masculine man is finding such an example in an inherently “female oriented” space feels contradictory and borderline hypocritical of the neo-masculine doctrine. However, what is concerning about this is that we package the Nicholas Sparks man as an unreachable and yet still idealized archetype that embodies what a large portion of women believe they want. In doing so and without recognizing the similarities to extreme ideologies like Neo-masculinity. Such ignorance could serve to justify some the existence of toxic ideologies, like Neo-masculinity, that posits that their type of masculinity exists in order to service female demand. And while there are certainly many things problematic with the values of the Neo-masculine doctrine, as they are articulated by the RooshV website, there are some qualities like work ethic and individual responsibility that are not inherently negative or destructive. But they become limiting and toxic when it is framed that the only ones with access to these qualities are men. And that these qualities are not something that one can earn without also adhering to the inherently destructive values like binary sex model, feminine beauty standards and game theory.
To conclude I am not by any means claiming that the male leads of the Nicholas Sparks films are neomasculine. I simply wish to note that the two approaches and understandings of what masculinity looks like is similar even if their application is different. This kind of masculinity that is present in these particular “chick flicks” films but that is also present in oppressive, discriminatory rhetoric of Neo-masculinity is disconcerting. And that’s not even acknowledging the fact that these beliefs are in and of themselves limiting to what society permits to be considered masculine, ultimately cultivating an unhealthy and repressive cultural norm as a result of being idolized in these films by women - and by extension the men who attempt to live up to them. As Corsello summarizes: “the romantic standard set by the Nicholas Sparks Man that you will never live up to”[xli] is but one perspective of masculinity and it is not the only one or the right one. Just as Neo-masculinity isn’t either, despite its attempts to claim otherwise.
[i] Silverstein, Melissa. “Pondering the Chick Flick.” Huffington Post, Oath Inc, 25 May 2011, www.huffingtonpost.com/melissa-silverstein/pondering-the-chick-flick_b_180039.html.
[iii] Corsello, Andrew. “Nicholas Sparks- What Women Want.” GQ, Condé Nast, 6 Oct. 2014, www.gq.com/services/rss/summary.
[iv] Petersen, Anne Helen. “Why Nicholas Sparks Matters Now.” Buzzfeed, 11 June 2014, www.buzzfeed.com/annehelenpetersen/why-nicholas-sparks-matters-now?utm_term=.wa1qBaDGp#.thebrnM7m.
[v] Johnson, Brian D. “What Makes Nicholas Sparks Fly.” Macleans , 19 Apr. 2012, www.macleans.ca/culture/movies/what-makes-sparks-fly/.
[vi] Kaufman, Amy. “'Safe Haven' Premiere: Don't Call It a 'Chick Flick,' Please.” Los Angeles Times, 6 Feb. 2013, articles.latimes.com/2013/feb/06/entertainment/la-et-mg-safe-haven-premiere-julianne-hough-josh-duhamel-20130206.
[x] Radner, Hilary. "From the woman’s picture to the new woman’s film, the chick flick, and the smart-chick film." The Routledge Companion to Cinema & Gender (2016): 121.
[xvii] Giaccardi, Soraya, et al. "Media and modern manhood: Testing associations between media consumption and young men’s acceptance of traditional gender ideologies." Sex Roles75.3-4 (2016): 151-163
[xviii] Merry, Stephanie. “Are You Watching a Nicholas Sparks Movie? This Guide Can Help.” The Washington Post , 9 Apr. 2015, www.washingtonpost.com/news/arts-and-entertainment/wp/2015/04/09/are-you-watching-a-nicholas-sparks-movie-this-guide-can-help/?utm_term=.5ad4f85ad984.
[xix] Todd, Carolyn. “We Totally Forgot About These Nicholas Sparks Movies.” Refinery 29, 20 June 2016, www.refinery29.com/2016/06/114280/nicholas-sparks-movies-ranked#slide-11?bucketed=true.
[xx] Altenburger, Lauren E., et al. "Sexist attitudes among emerging adult women readers of fifty shades fiction." Archives of sexual behavior 46.2 (2017): 455-464.
[xxiii] Olmstead, Gracy. “Why Nicholas Sparks Is Bad for Romance.” The Federalist, 11 Apr. 2016, thefederalist.com/2016/04/11/why-nicholas-sparks-is-bad-for-romance/.
[xxx] Otis, Lauren. “10 Reasons to Never Watch an Adaptation of Nicholas Sparks Books.” Complex, 17 Apr. 2012, www.complex.com/pop-culture/2012/04/10-reasons-to-never-watch-adaptations-of-nicholas-sparks-books/.
[xxxiv] Curtius, Quintus. “Origins of Neomasculinity.” Returnofkings, 9 Mar. 2015, www.returnofkings.com/58237/the-origins-of-neomasculinity.
[xxxv] RooshV. “What Is Neomasculinity.” RooshV, 6 May 2016, www.rooshv.com/what-is-neomasculinity.
[xxxvi] RooshV. “How to Be a Man.” RooshV, 24 Oct. 2011, www.rooshv.com/how-to-be-a-man.
[xxxvii] George Tillman, director. The Longest Ride. Fox 2000 Pictures, 2015. 12:40
[xxxviii] Tillman 9:40