American Postfeminist Cinema
Women, Romance and Contemporary Culture
Edinburgh: University Press, 2015
Paperback. vii+200 p. ISBN 978-1474405560. £19.99
Reviewed by Krystina Osborne
Liverpool John Moores University
Michele Schreiber’s engaging 2015 monograph American Postfeminist Cinema : Women, Romance and Contemporary Culture (part of the Edinburgh University Press series entitled ‘Traditions in America Cinema’) interrogates the centrality of heterosexual romance in postfeminist culture. Focusing on a selection of films, from 1980 to 2012, that Schreiber terms ‘the postfeminist romance cycle’ , the text uses a myriad of examples and several in-depth case studies in order to highlight narrative patterns and thereby analyse the (lack of) progression of contemporary female-oriented American cinema alongside developments in (post)feminism. She observes how female characters in films are written in order to mirror the lives of female viewers, addressing economic and political concerns in addition to romantic struggles in order to argue that ‘the romance film is not merely symptomatic or reflective of the postfeminist era’s political and cultural shifts; it is inextricably linked to these changes’ . Across the text’s five chapters, Schreiber builds a convincing argument centring on the ambivalence of contemporary women that pervades the postfeminist era.
I particularly enjoyed the chapter entitled ‘Sexy vs. Funny : Sexuality in the Postfeminist Cycle’, in which Schreiber explores the notion that female characters are presented as being either sexy or funny: never both. She argues that female characters are often reduced to polarised caricatures of ‘the cute prepubescent girl and the dangerous woman’ . The former category is represented here by Sally (Meg Ryan) from Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally (1989) and the more recent example of Jess (Zooey Deschanel) from the successful television show New Girl (2011-). These characters, often the protagonists of their film or television show, are routinely infantilised rather than sexualised, and are usually rewarded for their idealistic, ‘good girl’, feminine behaviour with a happy ending with the man of their dreams. By contrast, Schreiber observes that female characters who conform to the latter category – representing unabashed sexual desire rather than a wish to marry and start a family – are often associated with mental instability and female-on-male violence. Schreiber explains that these characters often appear in erotic thrillers, using examples including Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction (1987) and Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (1992). More overtly concerned with sexuality as opposed to romance, these ‘bad girls’ are usually marginalised and represent a threat to the narrative resolution, often by tempting the male protagonist away from a more wholesome female character; this reinforces archaic patriarchal ideas of the virgin / whore dichotomy, pitting female characters against each other in the pursuit of men. Female viewers are encouraged to identify with the ‘good girl’ character, whilst the ‘bad girl’ is often punished or even killed off.
Other chapters of American Postfeminist Cinema : Women, Romance and Contemporary Culture centre on women’s politics, temporality, economics and amelioration in the postfeminist cycle. Schreiber’s discussion of amelioration analyses how postfeminist romance pervades culture, its transmedia influence not merely limited to film, television and literature: Schreiber demonstrates that other arenas such as social media, dating websites and self-help manuals reiterate the notion that ‘postfeminist romance’s cyclicality is not medium specific but truly a fluid process where real life and fiction collide’ . The text explores how classic literature, such as the work of Jane Austen, goes on to inspire films such as Amy Heckerling’s Clueless (1995), suggesting that the same romantic texts are continually reworked because fiction is viewed as ‘the great mediator between the harsh reality of the present and idealized ideas of the past’ . Furthermore, Schreiber focuses on the self-help manual He’s Just Not That Into You by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo (2004), comparing it to the 2009 film version, directed by Ken Kwapis. Whilst the book’s premise is that ‘women’s romantic, idealistic approach is in need of a remedy by way of a rational male perspective’ , the film adaptation, according to Schreiber, perpetuates ‘the sentimental, fantasy-based ideas that the book was designed to debunk’ . Again, by exploring the extent of the influence of postfeminist romance on the lives of contemporary women, Schreiber underlines not only the pervasiveness of these discourses but also the need for more research into the romance genre in general.
The text ends with a concluding chapter entitled ‘Beginnings vs. Endings: the Future of the Postfeminist Cycle’, which includes an extended analysis of Paul Feig’s 2011 hit Bridesmaids. Highlighting the female-oriented film’s focus on bathroom humour and physical comedy – traditionally male domains in Hollywood comedies and beyond – Schreiber explores the polarised critical reactions to this and other aspects of the plot. She demonstrates how the narrative pits the flawed, relatable protagonist Annie (Kristen Wiig) against the idealised, antagonistic Helen (Rose Byrne), thus replicating patriarchal stereotypes of women and undermining the film’s ostensibly feminist undertones. However, Schreiber also argues that Bridesmaids’ focus on female friendships relegates Annie’s romantic struggles to the status of a secondary subplot, positioning the film as ‘both a romance film and not a romance film’ , its progressive stance limited by its tendency to adhere to the conventions of the romance narrative structure. I appreciated Schreiber’s refusal to hail Bridesmaids – the final text discussed – as representing the beginning of a new era of postfeminist cinema; instead, she acknowledges the film’s more problematic elements, whilst highlighting the genre’s potential for change.
Overall, Schreiber’s text provides a valuable insight into the continued influence of postfeminist anxieties surrounding heterosexual romance on contemporary American cinema. Her framework of the conventions of the ‘postfeminist romance cycle’ offers a useful method for analysis that could be expanded upon in further research projects. The text will be of interest to scholars in the fields of gender and sexuality, film and romance, in addition to cultural historians and researchers of American Studies in general.
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