After 'Atomic Blonde' And 'Girls Trip,' It's Time To Redefine 'Chick Flick'

(Welcome to What Women Watch, a series exploring what modern women are watching, and loving, on the big and small screens. In this edition, we examine how the films being made for women are changing for the better, as seen in movies like Atomic Blonde and Girls Trip.)

Last week, I went to see Atomic Blonde and I left that theater feeling like a badass. I left that theater feeling sexy. As I listened to two men on the way out say that Charlize Theron's Lorraine could kick John Wick's ass, it felt damn fine to be a woman. In the days that followed, the Atomic Blonde soundtrack has become my soundtrack. I listen to it at the gym, while I drive, and even when I sweep my floor. Her capabilities, her complexity, her charm...I couldn't stop thinking about Atomic Blonde.

On Tuesday I went to see Girls Trip. I left the theater feeling like a badass. I left that theater feeling sexy. As I listened to all of the of women in the room (mothers with their daughters, couples, groups of friends) laughing and cheering, it felt damn fine to be a woman. I was a bit shy about seeing a buddy movie alone, but by the 10-minute mark, the whole theater felt like an old group of friends with inside jokes that we kept from the men in the audience. Those women on that screen, their capabilities, their complexity, their charm...I couldn't help but feel camaraderie, and a certain amount of pride, in my closest female friends.

"Chick Flick" is the term dubbed for movies that were more directed towards women. They are the films that, with a quick Google search, bring up words like, "sentimental" and "emotional," and phrases like, "female lead" and "appeals to women." I don't know about you, but those seem like two very narrow words to be connected to two very open phrases. Let's face it, "chick flick" refers to the movies that your boyfriend or husband is considered "brave," "generous," or "whipped," to see with you. They are the movies that us ladies are supposed to watch while we drink wine and dab our tears away without ruining our mascara. They are "sentimental" and "emotional," and if that is what you want to watch, then go for it. I have my go-to 'chick flicks,' always ready to go for when a just want to watch a movie that makes me go, "awwwwww." But what do I watch when I want to feel like a badass, when I want to feel damn proud to be a woman? What even is a "chick flick" for the "chicks" of 2017?

girls trip movie

What "Appeals to Women" in 2017?

Badass. Sexy. Proud. These feelings aren't new after seeing a movie, but they are certainly more rare. They are the result of watching a woman on screen reflect a woman's specific capabilities, charms, and complexities. I thought John McClane was the coolest guy that had ever existed, but the first time I saw Ellen Ripley or Lara Croft, I wanted to be them. I saw The Hangover like the rest of the world, and I died laughing. I enjoy my fair share of bromantic comedies. But when I saw Bridesmaids and Sisters, I thought, "OMG that is totally me and my friends." If "chick flicks" are supposed to be the movies that "appeal to women," well, "sentimental" and "emotional" aren't going cut it in a world where millions of women march in dozens of countries for to demand respect and equality. We want Emily Blunt in Edge of Tomorrow. We want Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road. We want Lorraine Broughton in Atomic Blonde.

Atomic Blonde Trailer

Her Capabilities

How about that stairwell scene in Atomic Blonde? Wow. It is no secret that Charlize Theron went through brutal fight training to play the '80s spy, and badass, Lorraine. While she was learning the fight choreography for the film, she repeatedly asked, "Could a girl do that?" Not because women are weaker (anyone who watches UFC can tell you that women are more than capable of smashing skulls just fine), but because it was important to Theron that the fighting be, practical for a female fighter. Men and women have different capabilities. Body mass, center of gravity, upper versus lower body dominance. In Atomic Blonde, Lorraine throws a punch and it noticeably causes her pain. That's because Lorraine doesn't throw a whole lot of punches. She is, "all elbows and knees and full body weight to throw..." Why? Because that is how a woman would fight.Atomic Blonde plays directly into a woman's specific capabilities. At one point, Lorraine fights off a man with a set of car keys between her fingers. This one was specifically fantastic to see, because that is exactly what a woman would do. I was taught to walk with my keys between my fingers since I was given my first set of keys, easy self-defense for the weaponless woman walking alone. She often fights with the resources that are present. These men she was fighting obviously outweigh her, so it wouldn't make sense that she could knock them down and out with a simple punch. But some wire or a cook top, or just taking advantage of her speed and smaller size? Those are advantages.

A lot of this could easily be said about Wonder Woman as well, but I want to mention the woman behind the superhero: Gal Gadot. It is no secret that Gadot kicks all kinds of ass in Wonder Woman. Diana of Themyscira may have abilities that far extend the reach of man, but if you want a lesson in the capabilities of non-Amazons, Gal Gadot did reshoots for Wonder Woman while five months pregnant. How's that for the weaker sex? That is what woman are capable of. They can kick ass and carry babies. At the same time.

Atomic Blonde Featurette

One of my favorite aspects of Atomic Blonde is that Lorraine gets tired. That sounds strange, but it is something that struck me. Lorraine is beaten, bruised, bloody, and exhausted. She can barely finish the fight, and when she does, she just keeps going with the mission. They let the ends of her blonde hair turn pink with blood and they let those gorgeous eyes break some blood vessels and they let this tall, graceful woman try to get up, only to fall right on her ass and have to try again. This isn't James Bond. These weren't aesthetic scratches. This struck me because it was the perfect embodiment of the fact that women are biologically designed to withstand massive amounts of pain and still get shit done.

This is what women want to see. Not the absence of pain, but the perseverance through the pain. Gal Gadot is not the only actress to shoot pregnant and she certainly isn't the only woman that had to honor her responsibilities and obligations while her body was going through nine months of drastic changes. Being physically uncomfortable and experiencing pain is something that most women are extremely well acquainted with on a fairly regular basis. If you want to show what women are capable of, don't show a woman walking away from a fight with barely a scratch. Show her stumble, show her get bruised and tired. And then show her continuing on because they have a job to do, damn it.

Girls Trip (2017)

Her Charm 

55 years after her death, people are still enraptured by Marilyn Monroe. A deeply tragic tale, Monroe was a woman whose complexities were carefully and meticulously veiled by her charms. Much like Charlize Theron emphasizing the practical capabilities of female fighters, charm is something that is also a little more specific to women on screen.

Charm is something that women in film have ever lacked. In fact, the starlets of the golden era of Hollywood are iconic because of their charms. However, 2017 is a far cry from the years of Marilyn Monroe and Doris Day. As women broke through glass ceilings and the days of Leave It to Beaver ended, the world started to learn that women aren't ladylike. Well at least by the general consensus of what that (male-defined) term. That's not to say that women aren't classy and put-together and have manners, because we have those things in spades, But we also can sit in a coffee shop with our best friend and talk about unfortunate and awkward sexual situations complete and swap a lot of really fun euphemisms for what sits between our legs.

I mentioned before that I left Atomic Blonde and Girls Trip feeling sexy. One may be a shadowy thriller and the other may be so funny that you forget how to breathe, but they both induce that deep sense of confidence in your own femininity that manifests itself in "I can take over the world and look damn fine doing it," level of confidence. The women of Girls Trip are beautiful, funny, and intelligent. They were the whole proverbial package. They could walk into a room and demand attention, getting double takes and free drinks, but when the evening evolved into flirting, drinking, and partying, things get messier for them. But in a good way. An honest way. A charming way. Too often, women shown as the perfect cool girl or the demure girl or the seductive girl. Women can be all of those things, but they aren't defined by that one type and they certainly aren't infallible. For every story of a woman mastering one of those qualities, there is another story where she tripped and fell on her face.

Seeing leading ladies be clumsy or tired or goofy or messy is refreshing and relatable. It's no secret that women are under continuous pressure to look good. From photoshopped cover models to airbrushed selfies, women are regularly bombarded with the "perfect girl." The perfect girl is intimidating. This enigma doesn't make you feel sexy or confident – she makes you confront all of the things about yourself that aren't like her. But when you can watch the women of Girls Trip screw up and when you watch Charlize Theron climb to her feet after getting her ass kicked by men twice her size, you realize that these women aren't any less awesome or badass or sexy because they stumble. They are all of those things because they get back up. It is a revelation and it inspires confidence. What do women want? They want to leave a movie feeling empowered by all of the tools and personality that she already has within herself.

Gone Girl honest trailer

Her Complexity

"Women in film typically need a reason to become warriors – losing a child or husband. They can just be warriors." Charlize Theron said this at the Women Who Kick Ass Panel at this year's Comic-Con and when it comes to what appeals to women in 2017, this quote hits the nail on the head. It doesn't just apply to the Lorraines and Furiosas of cinema. You can't really talk about complex women without bringing up the latest trend that transcends film, television...and novels: the female-led psychological thriller.

In 2012, Gone Girl was a bestselling novel and two years later, it was a box office smash directed by David Fincher. Both versions showcased one of the greatest movie villains of the last 20 years: "Amazing Amy" Dunne. When I first saw Gone Girl, that twist made me spill my wine (Yeah, I can be a cliche) and a say a word that would make my mother cry.

Villains are, by definition, the opposite of the hero...but damn, if they aren't some of the most interesting and complex characters to grace fiction in all mediums. Amy, played to perfection by Rosamund Pike, sends chills down the spine in a way typically reserved for men like Hannibal Lecter. And like Hannibal, she is the kind of villain that is so cold, so meticulous, so captivating, that you can't help but to respect them, and even, dare I say, admire their work. There is no backstory to what made Amy the way that she is. Sure, you learn about her childhood issues with her parents, but nothing traumatic made her the evil mastermind that she is. She simply is. She is just a warrior...albeit, one with her sword pointed in a less noble direction.

Amy may be an extreme example of complexity, but it is clearly something that spoke to women, because the Gone Girl-effect hit hard, fast, and wide. Female-led psychological thrillers are filling bookstores (and my Amazon cart) at a rapid rate. "If you loved Gone Girl, you will love this!" is a common marketing tool. Often referred to as "Chick lit," this trend seems to be building, and thanks to women like Reese Witherspoon spearheading the production of these films (not to mention a book club), it is something we are going to see a lot more of on the big and small screen.

Big Little Lies 3Big Little Lies, another novel adaptation, took HBO by storm, and provided some of the most interesting and complex female characters to ever feud over elementary school politics. I read the book prior to the premiere of the miniseries, but what Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, and Shailene Woodley brought to the characters was haunting and a pure joy to watch, particularly in the case of Kidman's dark and uncomfortable take on the archetype of the abused housewife.

Physical and sexual abuse is a go-to backstory for female characters when writers need to create drama in the character's past. However, I think what women are responding to in characters like Celeste, or even Rachel in The Girl on The Train, is that there are many different ways to interpret a woman's story and not all women respond the same to a given catalyst. And in the case of someone like Amy or Lorraine, they don't even need a catalyst.

What women want is to feel represented. There are some women who want to be Ripley and Furiosa, and there are some women who want to be Carrie Bradshaw. There are others who strive to be like Amy Adams in Arrival or Sandra Bullock in Gravity. But for the most part, women want to be a little bit of all of the above. When movies hack and slash the female narrative to simple addition from a small pool of variables, you miss the larger equation. Women aren't a simple formula. Nobody is, no matter the gender. People are calculus. People are theoretical physics. Perhaps the issue with "chick flicks" not being taken seriously for so long has nothing to do with men not wanting to see "girly" things, but because nobody can relate to a simple character, and for far too long, women have been portrayed as "sentimental" and "emotional," with complex women being more of the exception and not the rule.

atomic blonde

The New Chick Flick 

What appeals to women is women being women. The new chick flick is Mad Max: Fury Road, it is Girls Trip and Trainwreck, it is Gone Girl and Big Little Lies. There are an abundance of films written primarily for men, but are enjoyed by all. However, now we are entering an age where three of the best films of the summer, Wonder Woman, Girls Trip, and Atomic Blonde are movies written with women in mind, but can and are enjoyed by all. The definition of the term "chick flick" is not inherently bad or wrong: there's nothing wrong with "films that appeal to women." We need this! we want this! But the new chick flick, the chick flick of 2017, is as simple as art imitating life. As women feel more comfortable being unapologetically themselves, the movies that "appeal to women" are the movies that envelop all that comes with being a woman.