Tips for Girls

What do female moviegoers learn from the movies about being women? Fortunately, not much.

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While Hollywood and Washington wrestle with the notion that movies are making young men more aggressive, nobody seems to be worrying about how impressionable young women are being influenced by the big screen. We should be worried, because if girls took their cues from the screen, they'd all become vacuous bimbettes who treat their friends like shit.

Luckily, women are smarter than guys, who do bust out of theaters with testosterone gushing from their glands. Women know that movies don't help them find solutions for the problems of life. Otherwise, there would be thousands of women flashing their beavers in hopes of becoming best-selling novelists and successful murderesses (Basic Instinct), having their ovaries taken out when they don't have to in order to get large insurance settlements (Malice), or dripping hot wax over lawyers' bodies (Body of Evidence), which, come to think of it, isn't such a bad idea. Or we'd be sleeping with old men in overpriced suits because they offered us a shitload of money... wait a minute, I forgot--we do do that.

We know that when we look for moral lessons from the movies, we come away with dangerous ideas. Of course, there's one idea that, despite our innate distrust and natural wisdom, we can't help falling for over and over again. Do I hear somebody humming, "Someday, my prince will come"? Pretty Woman was just the most influential of a seemingly endless string of films that say, Hey, you can't see a way out of your lonely, rotten life? Not to worry: a prince, or at least a middle-aged guy with oodles of dough and a car that costs as much as your family's house, is heading your way.

"That's the kind of thing that totally screwed me up as a kid," my friend Val, age 39, says. "I figured I just had to wait. And it was mixed in with being beautiful, too, because there were no ugly heroines. I realized I wasn't beautiful enough, because I waited and waited and waited. I'm still convinced my prince will come, only now I'm having a good time while I'm waiting."

Tory, age 35, went apoplectic on this subject. "Katharine Ross in The Graduate . . . remember that? Her character teaches you to take a passive role in your life, to be sweet and demure, and Prince Charming will come and rescue you--even though he's shtupping your mother, and she's sexier than you are!"

Millions of women continue to blindly buy into this myth, including my niece, Mara, the most romantic 26-year-old since Jane Eyre. "I think there aren't enough stories where the woman is feminine and the man takes care of her, like Pretty Woman," she said at dinner one night, inciting a virtual lynch mob. "Really, I think women are too tough nowadays in the movies."

It was no surprise to me that Sleepless in Seattle went through the roof. Here's a film that says that whatever the happiness you may be finding with the man you're with, it's nothing compared with what would happen if your phantom lover, who lives halfway around the world and has never met you before, showed up at the Empire State Building. Am I the only one who wanted to push the Meg Ryan character in front of an oncoming cab, thereby making her eligible for the remake of _An Affair to Remembe_r?

Since the action-'80s, women seem to be doing more on-screen. But more may not mean better. Some of my friends, who usually have more sense, nattered on about what great role models we've seen in the past few years. "Holly Hunter in The Piano," Barbara, age 21, said, her eyes nearly rolling back in ecstasy. "Oh yeah?" said my friend Michelle, age 38. "What the hell was Holly Hunter trying to say: Cut out my tongue, shame on you. Cut off my finger, shame on me?" Val brought up Geena Davis in Thelma & Louise. "Oh sure," I said, "have your first orgasm, and death will surely follow." Susan Sarandon in Lorenzo's Oil, my sister suggested. "Okay, here's the deal," said Michelle, "if you're a ferocious and loyal mom, your desperately ill child may one day be able to blink at you." Mary McDonnell in Passion Fish was the next one up. "Oh sure, the movie that proved that most actresses would be better people if they were in wheelchairs," Michelle said. My mother brought up the women in Fried Green Tomatoes. I had to agree--most men would taste better with barbecue sauce. Val remembered loving Sigourney Weaver in The Year of Living Dangerously. "An interesting lesson," noted Michelle. "She decides that Mel Gibson is not only more important than her career, he's worth threatening national security!"

Women know men run Hollywood, so the last thing we'd expect is movies that give us good advice on mothering. This is a town that thinks it's all right to arrive at your destination, realize you've forgotten your youngest child at home, and your biggest dilemma is whether you'll get another chance to steal the crystal salt-and-pepper shakers from first class. Hello? As my young friend Janina remarked, "What can they be thinking when the best mother we saw all year on-screen was a man?"--i.e., Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire.

Some of the women I spoke with said that the only advice they felt safe taking from the big screen was from films made decades ago, when women like Katharine Hepburn, Greer Garson, Susan Hayward and Audrey Hepburn were using their feminine wiles to get what they wanted, all the time letting men think they were sweet, innocent and helpless. These, they argued, were women who worked, who had serious things on their minds, who could wear a peplum jacket and tight skirt and not look idiotic. But others said that they hated those old movies, where Doris Day goes through one imbroglio after the other, having to share her phone line with someone she hates, taking exotic vacations with men she doesn't know, and through it all, she holds on to the thing she values more than life itself--her virginity. And what does she get for all the trouble? A nice mink coat. "What the woman needed was a vibrator," Traci observed.

No, we can't look toward Hollywood to help us with our feminine psyches. We know that in movieland, we will be assured that what you look like is much more important than who you really are, that showing off your body is always a better idea than showing off your mind, and that if you act strong, you'll be known as a pushy bitch.

In the end, my girlfriends (who are experts on everything, and have opinions on even more than that) agreed that women should look to the movies only for the practical tips they can offer us. And everyone from Val,age 39, to Rosie, age 20, could name helpful hints they'd picked up at the cineplex.

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