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The Boston Phoenix Gritty in Pink

Girl power fuels this summer's movies

By Alicia Potter

AUGUST 31, 1998:  "I can do anything."

That's the mantra of Madeline (Hatty Jones), the titular heroine of one of summer's spunkier box-office hits. And does she ever: this wee lass survives an appendectomy, tumbles into the Seine, brawls like a boy, speeds on a motorcycle, and eludes kidnapping clowns. No, don't let the Mary Janes and the prissy straw hat fool you: this orphan schoolgirl kicks butt.

And she's not the only one. In fact, Madeline joins a veritable cinematic sorority of young female characters with unusual -- and unapologetic -- gutsiness. From Madeline to Mulan, Ever After to Whatever, Slums of Beverly Hills to The Parent Trap, the summer's movies have redefined the young Hollywood heroine.

This advance, however, isn't necessarily about feminist enlightenment. It's about cash. Consider how often that zit-ripping pore strip ad is projected on screen before every movie and you'll understand just how coveted a demographic girls are. According to Teen Research Unlimited, last year girls ages 12 to 19 spent $60 billion.

That's a lot of babysitting money, a healthy chunk of which lands at the ticket counter. This week, two girl-powered films appear in the summer's testosterone-heady Top 10: the remake of The Parent Trap at number five and the revisionist Cinderella story Ever After at number six. Meanwhile, Disney's warrior-girl Mulan has raked in $113 million since its June release.

Economics aside, the debut of several women directors has also meant more honest, more empowered young female characters. This summer has brought us first-time films from Tamara Jenkins (Slums of Beverly Hills), Theresa Connelly (Polish Wedding), Susan Skoog (Whatever), Maureen Foley (Home Before Dark), and Nancy Meyers (The Parent Trap). Skoog, Foley, and Jenkins plumbed their own comings of age for raw, semi-autobiographical glimpses of girlhood. "I wanted to show her [the character Anna] as realistically dealing with the self-esteem issues that girls encounter but that often get glossed over in film," says Skoog. "A lot of TV shows and films are about the girls we aspire to be, like Kate Winslet in Titanic. I wanted to show what being a girl is really like."

It's about time. Cinema has always dished up girls as either ragamuffins or nymphets -- sometimes, disturbingly, as a little of both. An intrigued Graham Greene once described pouty, pudgy Shirley Temple as radiating "an appeal interestingly decadent." When feminist film theorist Jeanine Basinger assayed Temple's oeuvre in her seminal book A Woman's View, she discovered the moppet almost always plays an orphaned daddy's girl. Without an on-screen mother, Shirley taps and toddles as a non-threatening, endlessly adoring substitute for a grown -- that is, emotionally and sexually mature -- woman. Just consider the scene from 1936's Poor Little Rich Girl where Temple warbles to on-screen papa Michael Whalen: "In every dream, I caress you. Marry me and let me be your wife."

Yikes. Still, classic Hollywood has introduced a girl or two who can rival today's heroines for grit -- minus the feverish undertones. Elizabeth Taylor has moxie to spare as the tomboy equestrian of 1944's National Velvet; two adaptations of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women -- 1933, with Katharine Hepburn, and 1949, with Taylor -- hold up amazingly well. Then there's The Wizard of Oz (1939), in which Judy Garland's plucky Dorothy contends with a witch, a wizard, and a trio of needy acquaintances. Of course, Hollywood did a lot more for the sexually precocious girl: Sue Lyon's Lolita in Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of the Nabokov classic (1962); Carroll Baker's crib-bound child bride in Elia Kazan's Baby Doll (1956); Jodie Foster's pubescent hooker in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976); Brooke Shields's prepubescent hooker in Louis Malle's Pretty Baby. Simultaneously tantalizing and tragic, they're icons of the male viewer's basest, white-panty fantasies.

And what of Molly Ringwald? The wallflower of John Hughes's Pretty in Pink (1986) and Sixteen Candles (1984) charmed Reagan-era youth with her pillowy lips and quirky sense of style. Here seemed to be a girl we could relate to, an accessible, angsty misfit who posed an alternative to the decade's nubile victims of stalkings, voyeuristic fantasies, and clumsy seductions. Still, the fairytale endings of Ringwald's films are heavy on wish fulfillment and light on reality. Says Skoog bluntly, "No guy in a sports car ever showed up to bake me a cake and drive me to the prom."

A handful of formidable female characters in the last decade have hinted at change: Heathers (1989), Clueless (1995), Little Women (1994, again!), Heavenly Creatures (1994), Fly Away Home (1996). But for the most part Hollywood has eyed such films as risky business -- what's the appeal for boys? Only recently, with the solid box-office and video success of Matilda and Harriet the Spy, and the way girls flocked to Titanic (one report concludes they provided 30 to 40 percent of the film's $580 million booty), have studios momentarily forgotten about catering to young males.

This summer's most affecting, most artistic films don't just forget about catering to young males -- they unabashedly risk alienating them. The issues here focus on girls' experience: menstruation, breast size, wobbly self-esteem. If boys can't relate, tough.

It's a profound turning of the tables. But then, no one rejiggered the script of Armageddon to accommodate a female perspective (contrary to popular male belief, the appearance of Ben Affleck in a tank top doesn't do it). "We put ourselves in the shoes of male protagonists all the time," says Slums of Beverly Hills writer/director Tamara Jenkins. "We've been forced to in order to take a narrative ride."

One film that challenges the male perspective is Skoog's gritty high-school drama Whatever. Anna is the type of dreamy, restless girl who doesn't have a photo in the yearbook but always has a joint. Outwardly hardbitten, on the inside she's unsure of her artistic talent, uncertain of her attractiveness, fearful of the world beyond graduation. When an older guy seduces her, he fingers the hem of her skirt and asks, "What are you most afraid of?" Anna replies, "Being ordinary."

This is a film about uncommon female valor? Yes. Anna may be no daredevil Madeline, but she comes to terms with her talent, breaks away from her boozily self-destructive friend, and accepts her frazzled mother not as the enemy but as a flawed woman trying to make ends meet.

"Not everyone's going to be the homecoming queen and get the scholarship," says Skoog, who sets her film in the leg-warmer-and-bandanna days of the early '80s. "I wanted to examine how when girls have insecurities about their own worthiness and talent, they tend to quit or turn inward, while boys blame circumstance. Women tend to blame themselves."

Sex, too, is examined from a distinctly female point of view this summer. And it's a brazen one at that. Polish Wedding's ethereal temptress (Claire Danes) woos the neighborhood boys with kinky come-ons; the heroines of Whatever and Slums of Beverly Hills dispose of their virginity as if it were a to-do list item. Yet despite the in-your-face attitude, these are poignant, resonant portrayals of female sexual experimentation, gutsy precisely because they're so realistic. Indeed, behind the tough-girl swaggers is that well of all-too-familiar vulnerability.

"I think that teenage sex has been eroticized in a way that's really about grown-ups getting titillated by the notion of it as opposed to the reality of it," says Jenkins. "We all know that teenage girls don't usually have the most satisfying sex."

Jenkins, whose boldly funny film deals with such slumber-party topics as bras, maxipads, and vibrators, adds that she was determined to show girls' ambivalence about their bodies. "That's something I hadn't witnessed before on film, the graphic, frank depiction of the tug of war young women have with their bodies."

In all, a summer of rare anatomical diversity has replaced the usual perfect 34-22-34s. Both Weil of Whatever and Natasha Lyonne of Slums, expressive but no glamor gals, struggle with the awkwardness of abundant bustlines. Mulan emerges as the first Disney heroine who's not a pixellated pin-up, and in The Opposite of Sex and Buffalo 66, Christina Ricci flaunts ample curves.

Not every one of these films leaves boys to fend for themselves -- indeed, the more commercial ones put their heroines in touch with their masculine sides for broader appeal. Madeline scuffles with the brat next door and skids off into a chase scene; Drew Barrymore's Cinderella in Ever After is as skillful with a sword as she is quoting Utopia. Mulan, of course, not only acts like a boy but dresses like one too. Even the Hayley Mills Parent Trap, with a little finessing, could have been remade as the tale of twin boys.

But this isn't really worth quibbling over. Just the fact that a range of girl-powered movies are sharing the marquee with summer's detonation-happy fare is progress. Hollywood is clearly rethinking what it means to be young, female, and courageous.

Not that there isn't still a ways to go. A long ways. Already, the back-to-school season -- the time when many "serious," Oscar-caliber films debut -- hands the box office back to boys. Except for a smattering of fall releases -- I Still Know What You Did Last Summer, Pleasantville, A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries, and the re-release of The Wizard of Oz -- there's nary a strong young female character in sight.

Yes, despite their impressive box office and their glowing reviews, these are truly girls of summer, gone when the leaves turn crunchy and their fans head back to the classroom. But if, as Madeline says, girls can do anything, then we can wait for the next crop of intrepid young heroines. After all, we've done it before.

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