By Libby Pierzak-Pee
Since the dawn of time, ‘chick flicks’ have remained a source of guilty pleasure for women everywhere. Whilst the 80s may have given us John Hughes films in abundance, and with every single 90s rom com appearing to star either Meg Ryan or Julia Roberts, the turn of the millennium marked the golden age of the ‘chick flick’.
An era dominated by the likes of Reese Witherspoon, Kate Hudson, Anne Hathaway and Hilary Duff; the noughties provided us with a multitude of iconic chick flicks that greatly influenced our outlook on love. Yet, despite these films remaining sleepover and ‘girls night in’ staples, chick flicks have been deemed increasingly problematic over the years due to their formulaic paint-by-numbers plot lines, predictable characters, harmful and stereotypical portrayals of women, and lack of diversity.
Chick flicks are generally defined as films that primarily appeal to women and teenage girls. Films contain a leading female protagonist with storylines often focusing on love and romance. With their corny dialogue, over the top romantic gestures and seemingly perfect first kisses, chick flicks have distorted our version of reality when it comes to romantic relationships. So I decided to take a trip down unrealistic expectations lane to revisit some of the most iconic noughties chick flicks to see what lessons they truly teach us about love, from the positive and uplifting, to the simply diabolical.
Legally Blonde (2001)
From the minute she steps onto our screens Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) is presented as the typical chick flick cliché. She is the superficial, ‘dumb blonde’ who loves pink, fashion, and carries a dog in her purse everywhere she goes. Instead, Legally Blonde teaches us about female empowerment, the importance of personal growth, and the value of self-love.
One of the most important takeaways from the film is to stop wasting time chasing after a guy that does not respect you. Elle initially believed Warner (Matthew Davis) to be her ‘soulmate’ and decided to follow him to Harvard, turning herself into the girl of his dreams in order for him to realise he had made a mistake. Whilst this chick flick trope is tired and teaches women to constantly seek the validation of men, Legally Blonde never gives in to the stereotype by allowing Elle to settle for Warner. It’s not until Elle realises that Warner is never going to take her seriously that her motivation changes. Instead of succeeding at law school to impress him, she decides to succeed for herself. By the end of the film she realises that the right people will encourage you to grow as an individual, instead of shrinking you down into a version of who they want you to be.
Legally Blonde also teaches us that you should never have to change anything about yourself in order to impress someone and to never let anyone tell you you’re not good enough. It is established very early in the movie that Elle is intelligent, yet her hyperfemininity leads people to make assumptions about her intellect. Elle uses these doubts as her motivation to be successful. The qualities that make Elle a great lawyer were always within her and it is her strong sense of self which helps her to win her first legal case. Without her extensive hair care knowledge, how would we ever know that “the cardinal rule of perm maintenance is that you are forbidden to wet your hair for at least twenty four hours after getting a perm, at the risk of deactivating the ammonium thioglycolate!”
Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001)
Bridget Jones (Renée Zellweger) is the ultimate chick flick heroine. Always relatable, hilarious, and never short of embarrassing moments, she is a protagonist we all love and root for. Whilst there are aspects of Bridget’s story that haven’t aged well, (singlehood being treated as a great tragedy, normalising sexual harassment in the workplace, and obsession over her weight, to name but a few) we can actually learn some very important lessons about love.
Firstly, your flaws don’t make you unlovable. Too often we scrutinise ourselves, asking why we aren’t good enough. The whole world swooned when Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) told Bridget that he liked her “just as you are”. So whether you are showing your arse to the entire nation, turning up at a family party dressed as a slutty bunny, are incapable of cooking soup, and wear big knickers, Bridget reminds us that we don’t have to be perfect in order for people to love us.
It may be a rom-com cliché but don’t judge a book by its cover. If we can learn anything from Bridget and Mark Darcy it’s that first impressions aren’t always correct. Who knows, the mysterious stranger wearing the ridiculous reindeer jumper that his mother clearly picked out for him could just be the love of your life. Even if you do overhear him calling you a “verbally incompetent spinster, who smokes like a chimney, drinks like a fish and dresses like her mother” over a plate of turkey curry.
Avoid smug married couple dinner parties AT ALL COSTS! If you do find yourself attending one of these events, simply take a leaf out of Bridget’s book and when you are inevitably asked about your love life, immediately divert the conversation by throwing divorce stats at everyone.
Finally, bad boys give you nothing but grief. At some point in their life, every single woman will encounter a Daniel Cleaver. The attractive, ridiculously charming, sexy guy who can say the word and we’ll come running thinking that maybe…just maybe, this time will be different. Similarly to Bridget, we fall for their plans to take us on a mini break, thinking it means true love. But unfortunately they will never commit as they would rather shag Lara from the New York office. To them, you simply “fanny around with the press releases”. Always remember to choose yourself, vodka, and Chaka Khan!
The Notebook (2004)
Okay, I don’t care how attractive you think both Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams are, The Notebook is toxicity personified. For years everyone thought Noah and Allie were the epitome of what young love should look and feel like. However, The Notebook romanticises Noah and Allie’s relationship to such an extent, that it masks the many red flags that signify an abusive relationship.
Firstly, Noah is not the perfect, romantic lead we think he is. He is toxic, dangerous and emotionally abusive. Noah frequently asks Allie to go out with him, and after she says no multiple times, he continues to persist. Are we really surprised that a man’s brain cannot compute the word no? As if this can’t get any worse, at the carnival Noah scales a Ferris wheel and threatens to kill himself if Allie doesn’t agree to go out with him. By romanticising this type of behaviour, it not only excuses Noah’s behaviour, but leads women to tolerate similar actions by men which potentially places them in vulnerable and dangerous situations.
Allie is no saint either. Throughout the film her behaviour is unpredictable and volatile. She is often physically abusive towards Noah, pushing, shoving and slapping him round the face. Imagine if the gender roles were reversed. Her actions send out the harmful message that if a guy really loves you, he’ll be with you no matter how badly you treat him.
The movie also reinforces the toxic idea that relationships are stronger if the two people involved have gone through hell and back with or for one another. Noah and Allie’s relationship is incredibly tumultuous. They constantly fought with each other, screaming and hitting each other during these fights. Each fight is paired with upbeat music and shots of them making up afterwards, making it appear that their fighting is romantic. Because of their obsession with one another, the film highlights that these types of fights within a relationship are not only normal, but actually make couples stronger. Apparently true love is born out of conflict!
How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2001)
How could we discuss chick flicks without mentioning How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days? A personal favourite of mine despite its questionable lessons about love, you cannot help but fall in love with Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey as Andie and Ben. The film’s wacky premise involves lifestyle columnist Andie conducting a social experiment where she will attempt to scare off any man in 10 days by making the classic ‘mistakes’ women make, all whilst advertising executive Ben makes a bet with his boss that he can make any woman fall in love with him in the same period. In amongst their light-hearted comedic hijinks and schemes towards each other, the film presents a number of toxic takeaways about love.
How to Lose a Guy heavily relies on clichés by framing the early stages of a relationship as a battle of the sexes. The film sets men and women up as different species who fundamentally want different things from relationships, and heavily implies that these differences are ultimately the reason why many relationships don’t work.
The film also shows that men will only consider committing to you if they discover you’re a cool girl. The cool girl trope is often used in film and television, often branding a girl as “one of the guys”. She will often have a passion for sports and other stereotypically male-dominated interests, making her the male protagonist's perfect woman. The trope also emphasises that these masculine interests make the cool girl superior to other women. In contrast, Ben is presented as a masculine cliché. He is the young attractive bachelor that never wants to settle down. With Andie being framed as the cool girl exception, she is therefore Ben’s perfect woman.
Remember, it doesn’t matter if you’re both toxic, as lying and manipulation leads to true love. The film tries to paint the couple as being empowered due to their willingness to go to extreme lengths to get what they want, but ultimately both Andie and Ben are lying to each other in order to advance their careers. Their entire ‘relationship’ is built on dishonesty. Clearly in the world of chick flicks, your ideal partner is the person whose toxic traits match perfectly with yours.
The film also implies that a woman’s only happy ending is settling down with a man. How to Lose a Guy presents two different stereotypes of women. Andie wants to be a driven “career-woman”, but the film makes her ‘see sense’ by showing her that love was the answer all along. This is epitomised when Andie’s real happy ending is giving up her big job interview in D.C. to be with Ben. Woo for the patriarchy!
Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging (2008)
I hate to disappoint everyone, but Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging is a walking, talking red flag. Whilst it supposedly teaches young girls the importance of embracing your slightly awkward teenage self, the film has not aged well and is more problematic than you think.
Even though she’s only 14, having a boyfriend should not be the most important thing in Georgia’s (Georgia Groome) life. In fact, having a boyfriend should not be the most important thing at any time in anyone’s life. Georgia hun, there are so many years of men’s bullshit, lies and manipulation to deal with and you want to voluntarily speed up that process. NO! Also being jealous of your best friend for being in a relationship before you and using a guy to make another guy jealous is not okay.
The Ace Gang are not as ace as you remember. Firstly they let Georgia humiliate herself dressed as an hors d’oeuvre. They emotionally scarred us for life when we first heard the phrase, “But…boys don’t like girls for funniness”. Their snogging scale is messed up. And I’m sorry, but any game where you have to actively rate your best friends on their physical attractiveness to see if they’re girlfriend material is a huge red flag. I’m all for having honest friends but I thought friends were supposed to uplift and support each other, not tear their physical appearance down at the first opportunity?
Robbie (Aaron Johnson) cheats on both Lindsay (Kimberley Nixon) and Georgia and doesn’t appear to care. I don’t need to say anything else.
Also I demand justice for ‘slaggy’ Lindsay. Lindsay is the real victim of this movie. Georgia and the Ace Gang vilify Lindsay throughout the film simply because she likes boys, has big boobs and wears a thong. As the audience we are apparently supposed to hate this character simply because of her confidence and underwear choices. Also you shouldn’t have to completely humiliate your enemy in public in order to feel satisfied that you’ve ‘won’. Chick flicks love when women compete against each other for the affections of a man. Yes, Lindsay said some horrible things about Georgia and gave Robbie an ultimatum, but she still didn’t deserve to have her breast pads pulled out and shown to everyone at Georgia’s birthday party.
The Princess Diaries (2001)
Anne Hathaway stars as Mia Thermopolis, a shy, awkward if slightly geeky teenager who learns she is Princess of Genovia (be honest, we all thought Genovia was a real country!) Under the guidance of her estranged grandmother/queen (played by the iconic Julie Andrews), Mia has to decide whether to ascend to the throne or renounce her title. From this, the film doesn’t sound problematic does it? However, The Princess Diaries showcases the negative implications of using the trope of the ugly duckling turning into a swan.
The entire premise of the film is that Mia is in need of a makeover. When we are first introduced to Mia, we witness her frizzy hair, unruly eyebrows, thick glasses and braces. Because Mia is apparently so plain, she easily blends into the background and is essentially invisible to everyone around her. As part of her makeover, Mia ditches the glasses and curls in favour of straight hair, make-up and contact lenses. It is only after this ‘transformation’ that other people begin to notice and respect her. We’re now expected to believe that Mia’s make-over has transformed her so much that she is no longer the self-conscious, socially awkward, clumsy person she was before. In the eyes of society, she is now a more acceptable version of herself. This sends out a harmful message to women and young girls that our looks are the most important thing about us and that if we do not fit into society’s pre-fixed standards of physical beauty, we are deemed unattractive and therefore have to change our physical appearance in order to be accepted.
The film also teaches us that just because a guy is attractive doesn’t mean he won’t hurt you. Josh Bryant (Erik von Detten) is the popular boy Mia has a crush on for the majority of the film, despite the fact that he and his friends constantly make fun of her. After the whole school finds out she is a princess, Mia’s popularity increases causing Josh to suddenly become interested. He barely gave her the time of day before her makeover and then decides to ask her to go to a beach party with him. Josh then manipulates Mia when the press arrives at the party and instead of helping her, he kisses her in front of the cameras in order to get his fifteen minutes of fame. What. A. Dick.
A Cinderella Story (2004)
A Cinderella Story is nothing short of iconic and has become a chick-flick classic. Hilary Duff, Chad Michael Murray and Jennifer Coolidge in one film. What more could you possibly want? A modern-day take on Cinderella, the film revolves around high school students Sam Montgomery (Duff) and Austin Ames (Murray) who become online pen pals and plan to meet in person at their high school Halloween dance.
In typical chick flick style Sam and Austin are polar opposites. Sam is the low-profile tomboy who serves Austin and his friends at the local diner and is constantly teased at school for being ‘Diner Girl’. Austin is the school’s star football player. His dad shares the collective dream of every father of a teenage son in a chick flick, he wants him to go to USC to play football.
Even though Austin is supposed to be Prince Charming, he is a dick throughout the entire film. The secret back-and-forth emailing and texting between Sam and Austin appears romantic, until you realise that Austin has a girlfriend the entire time. Don’t get me wrong Shelby is an absolute menace, but that still doesn’t mean she deserves to have her boyfriend messaging other girls behind her back. Whilst guys speaking to multiple girls at once is standard behaviour in 2023, this would have been slightly more shocking in 2004. Also how did Austin not recognise Sam in that tiny mask? It was so obvious. Did he not recognise her hair, her face, or her voice? He was literally sat in the diner being served by Sam mere hours before the dance started! He also doesn’t stick up for Sam after Shelby and the other cheerleaders publicly humiliate her in front of the entire school by reading their email exchanges, exposing Sam as Cinderella. I’m sorry but that’s frog behaviour if ever I saw it.
Sam 100% deserved better and is arguably her own Prince Charming. The film redeems itself slightly by showing us that we don’t need a man to save us, sometimes we just find one along the way. Sam was no damsel in distress. She took control of her life by standing up to her stepmother, Shelby and her minions, and working at the Diner to get into Princeton. She may have been afraid to be herself at the start of the film, but her confidence and self-belief grows arguably more so than Austin’s and she is strong enough to put Austin in his place by delivering one of the most iconic breakup speeches of all time: “I know the guy that sent those emails is somewhere down inside of you. But I can’t wait for him. Because waiting for you is like waiting for rain in this drought. Useless and disappointing”.
The cringey romantic kiss in the rain that somehow ends the drought, cannot save the film. Yes Austin may have chosen Sam and Princeton over his father’s USC football dream, but considering he has spent the entire film being an absolute melt, he still remains just as useless and disappointing as he did before. I personally like to think Sam dumped him as soon as they got to Princeton.
What have chick flicks taught me?
As cringey as they may be, chick flicks can be incredibly damaging and send out some very contentious messages about relationships and love. They reassure our inner hopeless romantics that we are all entitled to our happy ending, by whatever means necessary. Because in the world of chick flicks, no-one seems to care if you lie, cheat, or emotionally manipulate your way into a relationship if you are pretty much guaranteed to end up with the man of your dreams. But whilst we cling to the idea of living out a fairy-tale fantasy, we inevitably set ourselves up for disappointment within our own relationships. The ultimate lesson is to remember not to take these films too seriously. Despite having their problematic moments, they are not meant to teach you about real love, healthy communication and how to function in a normal relationship. That’s what therapists are for!