By Jed Mayer and Jeffrey Canino | Press Play September 26, 2013 at 9:05AM
That’s me up there. See? That nine-year-old boy cheering on Lexie Winston to victory?
No, actually I can’t see me up there either. But I was there, along with hundreds of other lucky people who managed to get spots as extras on the set of Ice Castles. Starring a promising unknown, Lynn Holly Johnson, playing next to Robbie Benson, heartthrob of all the girls at my school, I’m still not sure why I was so excited when a friend gave me a pass to be on the set of this movie.
Growing up in Minnesota during the 70s, one didn’t have too many opportunities to rub shoulders with fame, so I guess I was excited at the possibility of maybe seeing myself in a movie filmed in my own home state. Like Lexie Winston, I was a small town kid hungry for a taste of fame.
When the film was finally released several months later, I was a little disappointed not to see my face up there in the crowd. But something else happened to me while I was watching Ice Castles, the kind of movie I wouldn’t have been caught dead seeing under normal circumstances. As I sat there, watching Lexie’s triumph against adversity, as she wins a regional competition despite being blind, I started to get a strange feeling inside me. By the time she started to trip over the roses thrown by her adoring fans, thus revealing her secret disability to the public, something happened to me that hadn’t happened since I was a child watching Dorothy trapped by the Wicked Witch: I found myself crying at a movie.
At some point during the picture I had come to identify with this plucky gal from the Midwest, and later came to realize, hey, maybe I did see a little of myself in that movie. Maybe, just maybe, a kid who watched only horror and science fiction movies had learned to watch movies in a different way. Maybe, like Lexie, I’d learned to see through the eyes of love.
As I secretly wiped away my tears on a napkin greasy with popcorn butter, I was anxious to forget about the incident, and I might have, until a few weeks later, when, bored on a Sunday night, I decided to watch the NBC movie of the week with the rest of the family. The feature turned out to be The Other Side of the Mountain, based on the true story of ski racing champion Jill Kinmont, who suffers a terrible accident during a race and becomes a quadriplegic. As soon as I heard Olivia Newton John singing the maudlin theme song I should have known what I was getting myself into, but some part of me couldn’t turn away. Not only was I drawn in to the story of Kinmont’s heroic struggle against adversity, but I also realized some part of me wanted to be made to cry. Some part of me was tired of trying to act like the guys I hung out with at school. Something in these movies allowed me to be a different kind of viewer than I was used to being. When I watched these films, I could be one of the girls.
Yeah, I know it’s sexist to associate getting emotional with being female, but that’s the way Hollywood tends to divvy up its demographics, and the movies I had been most obsessed with before what I have come to call “my Ice Castles experience” didn’t offer a lot of emotional range. But the more I watched these female-centered stories, the more I came to realize it wasn’t just tears I was after. I wanted to hang out with a different crowd. Bored with my male friends, I wanted to see how the other half lived. And the only place I felt I could be one of the girls was at the movies.
I would have given anything to have friends like this. When my friends hung out together, we pretended we weren’t really having fun, we didn’t care too much about each other, and that there wasn’t anything worth talking about besides music and movies. But I bet Annabeth Gish would have understood my secret hopes and dreams. And I’m sure Lili Taylor would have accepted all my adolescent sexual hangups, and maybe have had some good advice for me. And if only I could work at a place like Mystic Pizza, with a tough but lovable owner who would act as a kind of surrogate mother… In my naïve mind, this is what I thought life for women was like, and I wanted to be a part of it. And for two hours, I could.
In the movie Satisfaction I found the best of all possible worlds, female camaraderie and rocking out, kicking ass, taking names, and then having a good cry together.
What more could anyone ask for?
There’s even a male character in the film who gets to live out my dream, allowed into the secret world of women!
He says it’s his own private hell, but I knew what he really meant: it was heaven.
These kinds of films are derisively referred to as chick-flicks, but for many viewers they hold a significance that exceeds this condescending marketing niche. People who have favorite movies in common, especially those we wouldn’t admit to just anyone, are like members of a secret community, connected despite differences of age, gender, or taste. And what happens when we start looking outside of the confines of our gender roles?
Even though the stories of many so-called chick flicks tend to be conservative—I mean, most of these movies end with marriage—the experience of watching them might be seen as more transgressive.
Though you might not admit to it in the presence of certain people, I bet you secretly love Dirty Dancing. And once you get past the inane title, it’s actually a pretty good story. In it’s own daffy way, it’s also quietly subversive: it’s hard to imagine the Hollywood of today portraying a girl helping someone get an abortion in a positive light. By establishing a strong sense of identification between the viewer and the character of Baby, the film takes us through a narrative rite of passage in which we move from being Daddy’s innocent little girl to an abortion facilitator and a dirty dancer. And at the end, she makes everyone dance along.
Chick flick as agit prop? Maybe not, but for a girl watching this film it offers a rather racy path to maturity. And what about when a boy watches Dirty Dancing? Speaking for myself, I certainly don’t identify with Patrick Swayze: I connect with Baby. And this kind of connection can be liberating. At least, it certainly has been for me. I can’t imagine my life without chick flicks. Just don’t tell anyone I love this movie, alright?
Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.