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Get in Loser, We’re Going Shopping: Consumerism in Chick Flicks


Nothing was more exciting to me as a teenage girl than a sleepover party. It entails window shopping at the mall, nail painting, gossiping, and PG-13 movies. I loved bonding with fellow teenagers while painting our faces with drugstore makeup and watching movies in the middle of the night. These films fascinated me. In the exciting case of a middle school sleepover, girls would flock around a laptop to watch anything pink with women on the poster. We’d fawn over Cher’s beautiful home (and step-brother) in Clueless, Elle Wood’s pink wardrobe in Legally Blonde, and quote Mean Girls for hours. 

In the vast array of films made in Hollywood, there is a distinct and often overlooked sub-genre: the chick flick. Flashy, cheerful, and fueled by female protagonists, these films are widely recognized for being watched and loved by female viewers while facing criticism due to a lack of substance. Many films produced are trying to appeal to a stereotypical male audience with characteristics such as action sequences and silent bombshells. The chick flick genre is one of the few that tries to capture the opposite by (as the name suggests) attracting female viewers. As a result, many of these movies include traditionally “girly” sequences such as shopping sprees, makeover scenes, and soapy first kisses. The value of film genres is often credited to their cultural and artistic influence. The fashion and lexicon within these films have had a major influence.

Means Girls

From a feminist lens, this genre has been revered for decentering the male gaze and critiqued for its shallow presentation of feminine values. Does a woman’s passion for her handbag provide a progressive comfort due to the lack of male influence or does it send a message that consumerism is the key to being an accomplished woman? Etiquette about wearing pink on Wednesdays and keeping a perm dry for 48 hours was taught to many via these films, so let’s explore the subconscious lessons within some of these iconic chick flicks.

Filmmakers have targeted female audiences through “the chick flick.” A subgenre of film, these films center on a variety of female leads and oftentimes focus on materialistic elements like shopping and physical appearances. This combination of materialism and self-expression has juxtaposing narratives attached, and therefore researchers struggle to identify whether these films contribute a progressive or regressive view of femininity onscreen.

Girl Power = Consumerism

The Princess Diaries

Within the context of these films, it is implied that women use their appearance as signifiers of their social status. Shopping is a central aspect to a large portion of films in this genre and female characters often directly mention buying clothes and paying meticulous attention to their appearance. Retail therapy is frequently utilized to lift protagonists’ spirits and help them redefine themselves in a more outwardly honest and expressive way. Additionally, makeover sequences lead to better treatment of female protagonists by other characters. Popularity and respect are directly related to the stylishness and visual appeal of female leads. Within these films, female characters find joy and external success when well-dressed. Just take a look at Clueless. Cher and Dion virtuously vow to help new student Tai since her casual outfits and unplucked eyebrows are “totally helpless.”

One of the main critiques of this genre is that its emphasis on shopping and superficiality depicts an exclusionary and misogynistic portrayal of female interests. This emphasis on shopping in chick flicks can negatively portray women as shallow and materialistic. However, even more researchers suggest that this emphasis on consumerism isn’t exclusively demeaning since the appearance of a character in this genre is symbolic of self-expression and independence. 

​​Language as an Extension of Female Expression

Legally Blonde

A defining characteristic of the chick flick is the snappy dialogue shared between female characters. In many instances, films like Bridget Jones’s Diary utilize voice-overs and narration as a tool to access unrestricted thoughts from protagonists. Many women are expected to be selective with their words therefore the dialogue of these films portrays a more realistic sense of female opinions. Additionally, culturally relevant language and quick wit through quicker speech indicate stronger intellect and make characters more attractive to female leads. Punchy dialogue and the usage of voiceover narration provide this genre with a distinctly direct quality. This quick-witted dialogue has the potential to distance these leads from a strictly shallow sense of being and contribute to a full sense of character. 

The Female Gaze in Male Romantic Interests

Pride and Prejudice

Many chick flicks also fall into the category of the (largely heteronormative) rom-com, in which male romantic leads often try to impress the female gaze. Since female protagonists in this genre are often impressive, it is essential that their romantic interests treat them as such to reinforce their power. Additionally, these male characters are largely influenced by the speech and eloquence of the female protagonist.  An extension of the materialism of the genre, many male romantic leads (such as films like The Proposal and classic stories like Pride and Prejudice) have material value which reinforces the value of consumerism in chick flicks. Like material objects, male characters in this genre strengthen the power of female protagonists and aim to appeal to capitalistically advantageous female interests.

I’m Confused… Let’s Speak to the People!

When Harry Met Sally

There’s a strong historical influence of capitalism in media as a whole that cannot be ignored when discussing the chick flick. I spoke to a range of people about their thoughts on the genre. An anonymous source in women's studies explained, “In the 1950s suddenly everybody was consuming to sort of define their gender. Capitalism incentivizes sexism because they can make more money through it.” They went on to say, “I think I choose representation over limited representation, but I think there is something quite harmful in the message that you have to change through consumption to have happiness.” But another anonymous person I interviewed referenced Clueless and stated, ``I think I’ve always been intrigued by fashion and fashion design and Clueless was the first movie that ever made sense…  it is really beautiful to me.” Some movies like Legally Blonde manipulate materialism in the genre, using self-awareness about these tropes. Everyone agreed that there is a consistent trend of consumerism within the genre and that this theme is damaging to the portrayal of women. Yet, there was a strong belief that the consumerism attached to female protagonists made a significant impact on the plot, characterization, and legacy. They also all agreed we should also dedicate a significant amount of focus to the context behind the creation of the films. Most people I spoke to referenced how capitalism incentivizes filmmaking choices and production. Similarly to how we reflect on the effect films have on female viewers, it’s essential that we take their production into consideration.

Problem Solved? Ugh, as if!

The Devil Wears Prada

Since chick flicks target female viewers, it is important to leave audiences with a well-rounded and supportive depiction of gender. Limiting female characters to their material possessions reinforces misogynistic stereotypes so it is valuable to explore methods used in film to depict female characters. Cultural influences on consumerism and film production influence the portrayal of characters on screen were discussed with interviewees. However, the positive stories and characters cause an ultimately positive effect. Sure, the presence of consumerism in chick flicks should be acknowledged but so should the characters’ independence and agency. At its core, the genre aims to tell women’s stories. These stories have excited audiences for generations and will hopefully only become more inclusive and complex.

Written By Mary Leer

Creative Director: Cam Lyken

Photographer: Mark Bluemle

Talent: Celeste Nieves, Joceline G, Madison Willett, Malia Corinne

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