A post about romantic comedies, and Queen Latifah in particular

In my last post I mentioned I have a soft spot for Queen Latifah movies. I’m not sure I’ve ever said that out loud before, and now it is on the internet forever. Oh well. Over the weekend I’ve been trying to decide what it is about QL that I find so compelling, aside from the obvious, which is that she is one of the only full-figured actresses in Hollywood. I also took a look at one of QL’s latest films Just Wright, where she plays Leslie Wright, a physiotherapist who trains New Jersey Nets player Steve McKnight back to health just in time for playoff season.

Just Wright is a rom-com and as such the outcome of the film is obvious to the viewer from the outset: Steve and Leslie will fall in love. Because the outcome is clear from the beginning of a romantic comedy, film critics and everyday people are sometimes dismissive of the genre. Rom-coms are silly, light and uncomplicated; they are “chick flicks” and therefore not to be taken seriously. Wright? Sorry. I couldn’t resist. Like other forms of women’s popular culture, including fashion, magazines, soap operas and comic novels, we should take rom-coms (somewhat) seriously. These stories aren’t just about love, but about the way women are seen and see themselves in Canadian/American culture.

One of the earliest female directors in Hollywood, Dorothy Arzner, produced melodramatic films that were marketed to female audiences. In her own time, Arzner’s films were sold as female pictures that confirmed heterosexual marriage and femininity. Re-examining Arzner’s films in the 1980s and 1990s, feminist film scholars found a very different message. Feminist scholars believe that Arzner’s films were actually a critique of heterosexual femininity and the limited opportunities available to women in the time period. For example, on the surface the selfish and lonely Harriet Craig from Craig’s Wife (1936) appears to teach us that “those who live to themselves are left to themselves.” But on closer examination the drama of Harriet Craig can also be read as a condemnation of the limited opportunities available to American women in the time period. The film, according to Donna Cassella (2009), shows us that “male-female couples are problematic.” Cassella maintains that Arzner’s failed heroines challenge women’s expected social roles and the romance of heterosexual marriage.

Following this line of thinking, I wonder if Queen Latifah’s romantic comedies don’t contain similarly subversive messages to the films of Dorothy Arzner? The Queen plays average and un-glamourous women in her films: the aforementioned physiotherapist Leslie Wright, department store clerk Georgia Bird in Last Holiday and hairstylist Gina Norris in Beauty Shop. QL is an unlikely leading lady because she is full figured and no one ever says anything about it! She walks into the room in an evening gown and her leading men say “you look beautiful” and the subtext isn’t “you look beautiful for a large woman.” But, beyond her size, which isn’t generally seen as a problem in African American culture, QL’s roles don’t really fit the “cute” mold of contemporary romantic comedies.

Can you imagine Reese Witherspoon wearing a New Jersey Nets Jersey for fifty percent of her screen time? Witherspoon played a baseball player in one of her last films, and we barely saw her in uniform. Leslie Wright walks around in her jersey, stretchy jeans, hoodies, and cotton tops for most of the film. But beyond her size and seeming average-ness, QL’s rom-com characters are interesting because they get more than the man at the end of the film. Leslie Wright (spoiler) becomes an in-demand sports trainer at the end of Just Wright. Prior to meeting McKnight, Wright is a successful physiotherapist who has recently purchased her own home. The villain of this film is Paula Patton’s Morgan Alexander, a more stereotypically beautiful woman who is looking for a simplistic happy ending. Yet, even then, Leslie and Morgan are pals at the end of the film. Friendships aren’t lost in the search for the right life partner.

While not a critique of heterosexual marriage, QL’s films push gently at the boundaries of leading woman/romantic heroine roles in Hollywood. Even when she is playing an unlucky-in-love thirty-something, there is a lot more going on than just romance and comedy. QL’s films seem to reflect the multiple ways that women actually experience their lives: sometimes glamourous, sometimes professional, as friends and potential love interests.

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