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“Older Bird” Chick Flicks: Romance, Feminism, and Food for the Over-50 Crowd

What follows is a section from the paper, “Something’s Gotta Give in the Kitchen: Viewing Nancy Meyers’ Older Bird Chick Flicks through a Food Studies Lens.” Read another section from this paper in the post, “Transcending the Screen: Trophy Kitchens in Two Nancy Meyers’ Films.” 

“Something’s Gotta Give” (2003) provides a prime example of the older bird chick flick genre.

Called “Middle-Aged Chick Flicks” by Mimi Swartz and “older bird movies” by Cherry Potter, there is a recent trend of what Potter describes as “comedy dramas about the sexual awakening of middle-aged women.” A handful of film critics and scholars have considered this new genre. For example, Thane Peterson defines the older bird demographic as, “Affluent aging women who worry that they’ll never find romance — or even basic human respect — in our youth-obsessed society.” Margaret Tally offers her own analysis:

What these recent ‘older bird’ films may also be reflecting, then, are the contemporary struggles to redefine what middle age might be for a generation who has lived through the women’s movement and the struggle to have children at a later age than earlier generations. Sexuality and motherhood become, in this climate, both an affirmation of women’s earlier roles with the new wrinkle, so to speak, that they still can inhabit an earlier, more sexualized, sense of self.

So, why is it now that these films are gaining popularity? Peterson points to changing demographics, family dynamics, and financial trends, saying, “Women over 55 are rapidly becoming one of the wealthiest (and potentially most powerful) subsections of the U.S. population [due to] two-income families, tax-deferred savings plans, the huge appreciation in the value of stocks and real estate since 1980, [and] the fact that women outlive men.”

Diane Keaton (left) and Nancy Meyers

Critics and viewers alike herald Nancy Meyers as one of few directors making compelling films for the growing demographic of middle-aged women. And indeed, Meyers’ films perform well, even up against tough competition. For example, Something’s Gotta Give (2003) opened against holiday blockbusters, such as The Last Samurai, The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, and Master and Commander and still secured a top movie spot, generating $17 million at the box-office its opening week (Peterson 2003).

In a New York Times cover story on Meyers, Daphne Merkin comments on the writer and director’s method of packaging middle-aged love stories, saying,

Call it retro or call it postfeminist — but what sets it apart is that she is putting it at the disposal not of unformed 18-year-old girls but of accomplished 50-something women for whom romance is generally no longer considered an option, either because they are too old or because they are too threatening.

Barbara Probst Solomon, a writer and critic quoted in Merkin’s article, echoes this sentiment:

Feminism didn’t admit the longing for romance. And it also didn’t admit that romance often didn’t go with success. Her movies give women their reward — you feel nourished, the way you used to feel about old-time Hollywood movies. You’re not just an old bag sitting with your laptop at the beach — you’ve got your prince. It permits you to have your fantasy.

Indeed, Diane Keaton, who has appeared in several of Meyers’ films, contends that Meyers is “the only one delivering the fantasy for women over 55” (Merkin 2009). Some credit chick culture for supplying women with romantic fantasies in a variety of media forms. Ferriss and Young (2007) argue that the chick culture boom of the mid-1990s demonstrated a “growing recognition of women’s significance in contemporary culture.” Thus, the growth of films portraying middle-aged women, particularly the films of Nancy Meyers, also demonstrates a growing recognition of the significance of middle-aged women and the relevance of their quests for love.

Merkin expertly summarizes Meyers’ current scope of work in a single lengthy sentence:

Her films…tease out the conflicted, humorous heart of adult life, featuring grown-up men and women who have put a lot of living behind them; who may be divorced, are usually parents, have achieved a degree of professional success and the luxe lifestyle to go with it, but haven’t yet figured out the relationship thing.

Offering up a mix of reality and fantasy, Meyers provides both escape and hope to middle-aged female audiences, whose views on love, sex, and relationships are both informed and complicated by life experience, including marriage, motherhood, and divorce, and the stereotypes that accompany being middle-aged.

Food in Older Bird Romantic Comedies

While several scholars and critics have analyzed “older bird” romantic comedies (Ferris & Young 2007, Potter 2004, Tally 2007), they have yet to analyze the role of food, cooking, and kitchens within this burgeoning genre. Anne Bower defines a food film as one in which food plays a leading role; a dining room or kitchen are key settings for the film’s narrative; and finally, the film’s narrative line portrays “characters negotiating questions of identity, power, culture, class, spirituality, or relationship through food” (2004, 6).

I argue that Nancy Meyers’ older bird chick flicks Something’s Gotta Give (2003) and It’s Complicated (2009) play out middle-aged relationships and sexual exploration through the sub-text of food. Furthermore, food-centric scenes and spaces of supposed domesticity, female mastery, and confidence provide a vivid foil to these middle-aged women’s uncertainty and internal conflict with sex, sensuality, and relationships.

The trophy kitchen in “Something’s Gotta Give,” a space in which the protagonist’s romantic relationship begins and develops.

Food and cooking act as both symbols and narrative devices in Nancy Meyers’ films, representing and communicating the truly multidimensional nature of middle-aged women in not only the traditionally feminine roles of mother and housewife, but also the pro-feminist roles of career woman and lover. These different roles need not be in conflict within Meyer’s leading women. The older bird genre, as in Something’s Gotta Give and It’s Complicated, tells stories of sexual reawakening, a process that thus shifts the balance and requires ongoing negotiation of the self within the characters’ heretofore established identities.

As Meyers creates fantasies in which older women have it all, including career, family, financial success, love, and sexual fulfillment, this state of fantastical bliss is manifested within the film sets, particularly within the kitchens. With so much emphasis placed on the kitchens, these two films function as food films where food is far more than a prop, but rather an element of characterization, plot development, and social critique.

Through food — and juxtaposed with food — socio-cultural beliefs about middle-aged love and sexuality are explored in new ways in these two films. While Nancy Meyers’ packaging of middle-aged love includes considerable fantasy, it also reveals and affirms the very real conditions, desires, and hopes of a growing demographic of American women. As foodie culture and food films also continue to garner increasing attention, food-centered narratives provide unique sub-text to explore the multidimensionality of women of a certain age.

References

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