Triumph of the Tarts

Hollywood producers with ten-grand hair weaves and laser-whitened teeth are having a heyday. The most popular fictional archetype on the big screen today is that old Hollywood standby--the tart.


T.A.R.T.S. They come fully loaded, with catwalk bodies and a pocketful of neverminds. They're sweater puppies yap-ping to be petted. They stick out their flat bellies and temptation smolders under all that exposed skin like unexploded ordnance. They sing "hello" in three syllables and shed their bras without being asked twice. They take aim, mostly over their shoulders, and say things like, "I wanna be your wide receiver." They are tarts--rump-shaking, eye-rolling, naughty girl actresses, born in the last quarter of the 20th century and ready to lick their way into the 21st.

Today, tartage is everywhere. On any given weekend, there are half-dozen movies featuring characters with names like Sasha or Taylor, played by actresses with names like Amber or Tara. Together, the two films with Norman Rockwell irony in their titles, American Beauty and American Pie, served up four sticky convections to keep the male animal's blood sugar levels spiraling: Shannon Elizabeth and Tara Reid in Pie, and Thora Birch and Mena Suvari in Beauty. The 18-year-old pop tart singing sensation Britney Spears stripped to her bra and hot pants for Rolling Stone. And as proof that the tart is the new American Princess, there's Tart, a feature film in pre-production about a precocious teen exploring Manhattan's underground club scene, with Lolita's Dominique Swain set to play the lead. And who's the costar? That would be Melanie Griffith, who began her career 24 years ago as the tart who pulled Paul Newman's tie in The Drowning Pool.

Tarts are, after all, nothing new. They were there when Hollywood was born (Clara Bow advised us to Call Her Savage in 1932) and they've blossomed off and on in their brazen little getups ever since. But blame it on "women's lib" or whatever, the last time we saw a cavalcade of jailbait like the one cruising the big screen these days was the early '60s--Sue Lyon, Diane McBain, Tuesday Weld, Ann-Margret, Barbara Nichols et al. Melanie Griffiths come-ons in The Drowning Pool and Night Moves were cheerful throwbacks when they came along. And now, a lot has changed even since a 13-year-old Carrie Fisher tried to cream rinse Warren Beatty in Shampoo. Even since Phoebe Cates taught Jennifer Jason Leigh how to give head to a carrot in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Even since Drew Barrymore showed Tom Skerritt that what was on top of the hood of a car bear what was under it in Poison Ivy. With these gaps in tart cui-sine, there's no updated definition of tart that applies directly to the hotties of 21st Century Tartdom. As a public service, then, to the millions of young Paxil Nation wannabes looking for instruction, the following is a thumbnail sketch of the essential tart of today. In the spirit of the cheerleader, that archetype turned on its ear by tarts. Tartology 101 begins with a cheer.

T is for truthful. That's right, truth. A tart might use duplicity as a last resort, bur mostly she comes at you head-on, like a sidewinder missile with lip gloss on the tip. A good tart harbors a point of view and a great tart puts it out there for the whole world to see. In all her amorous banditry, the girl tells you where she's coming from and where she's going. As the blonde cheerleader in American Beauty, Mena Suvari not only seduces her girlfriend's rather, she tells her girlfriend (Thora Birch) of her intentions before she fires a single sexual shot. Does Dominique Swain, playing the title role in Lolita, the Citizen Kane of tart movies, know what she wants? Better still, does she make it known? Absolutely, Men are pelts: mount them, warm yourself with the fur, then mount them again--on the wall. As the blonde cheerleader in Varsity Blues, Ali Latter wants one thing and one thing only--to get out of small-town Texas. When her star quarterback boyfriend shatter his knee, she discards him like a broken jock strap and makes a brazen play for his back-up. As the blonde cheerleader (what else?) who runs away from her parents' Minnesota farm in The Big Lebowski, Tara Reid finds a rich sugar daddy who is to sexuality what autumn leaves are to toilet paper. What does she do? She propositions strangers and invites lovers for a dip in the mansion pool.

When a wolf is defeated he offers his throat; the tart shows hers out of defiance. Chin up, she waltzes with her own candor the way hippie chicks used to frolic in the mud at outdoor rock concerts. She never snarls. No--do not confuse the tart with the bitch. You can circle a tart's character flaws like areas to be liposuctioned on a 200-pound housewife, but when it comes to bitch content, the tart is low-calorie. Reese Witherspoon in Section is a bitch. Julia Roberts in My Best Friend's Wedding is a bitch. Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan, Evita, Truth or Dare, Who's That Girl?, Body of Evidence and as an acceptee at any video, film or music awards show is a bitch. Ashley Judd is...well, you get the picture. The bitch often becomes our hate charm, deliberately rubbing us the wrong way like Sarah Michelle Cellar, bitch extraordinaire, in Cruel Intentions. The motivated tart, who knows how to get ahead and give it, is capable of being extravagantly human and funny. "My name is Dedee Truitt," Christina Ricci says, introducing herself to us in The Opposite of Sex. "I'm 16, and this is Carencro, Louisiana. Which is French, I think, for, like, fuck-tart," In the words of Molière (who blessed us with Tartuffe, by the way), the bitch "is laughing up her sleeve at you." The tart? She goes sleeveless.

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