The genre of the “woman’s film” is arguably the most problematic one discussed in Graves and Engle’s book Blockbusters: A Reference Guide to Film Genres because of the question whether it still applies today. At the heart of the issue is whether the characteristics traditionally associated with the woman’s film are applicable today. Gender roles have changed for men and women so many of the characteristics associated with the woman’s film (such as sentimental and romantic plots) no longer apply to just women. This is seen with Silver Linings Playbook, a film that has all of the characteristics of a woman’s film, but features the experience of a male character.
It is important to note the characteristics of the woman’s film before critiquing its name. The woman’s film is known for: (1) its focus on women’s concerns; (2) sacrifice, hardship, and escapism; and (3) sentimental and romantic plots. While these characteristics were originally linked with women’s films, are they still applicable in today’s post-feminist world?
The woman’s film appears to derive its name from its target demographic. While the term “woman’s film” may seem sexist and/or irrelevant today, there is no denying that Hollywood targeted a female audience at one point in time. “Although Hollywood had been producing melodramatic, sentimentalized, and sensationalized stories since the beginning of the medium itself, the “woman’s film,” as these were called, became a permanent fixture and reliable commodity by the 1940’s. aided by the sheer number of women going to theaters on the home front during World War Two” (278). With many men away at war, and women working in traditionally male industries, Hollywood saw a chance to target a key demographic. However, should it still apply?
Women’s films became known by their focus on women’s concerns. “No matter what precise conditions historians, critics, or moviegoers place on definitions of the woman’s film, all examples emphasize the female and traditional female concerns, such as emotions, romance, and other personal connections, and the home” (279). However, what happens when traditions change? Graves and Engle note the changes in the woman’s film:
Films made to appeal to women may be divided into two or three separate categories: 1) the classic woman’s film, appearing from roughly the early 1930’s through the early 1960’s; (2) the feminist or post-feminist woman’s film, depicting the concerns of women making their way from outside the traditional domestic sphere; and (3) harkening back to the golden age, the “chick flick,” a largely lightweight romantic exploration of such traditional female concerns such as love and romance within a world of broader female choices (282).
The woman’s film has changed but it would be wrong to pigeonhole the genre merely by the date it was released. The film 1932 film Week-End Marriage featured a woman struggling to support her husband by returning to work while 1934’s Born to be Bad (1934) depicted the struggles of an unwed mother. Both films featured women in nontraditional roles for the era.
The film Silver Linings Playbook features a character undergoing sacrifice and hardship. The film’s plot is sentimental and romantic with an emotional character dealing with lost love and the chance for new love. However, this character is, Pat Solitano, Jr., a man trying to rebuild a relationship with his ex-wife, his family, and to cope with his mental health issues. He undergoes hardship in doing so, faced with a family that doesn’t know how to deal with his mental illness. Pat’s father has mental health issues of his own and Pat’s brother seems ashamed of him. Pat Jr. is also troubled by his inability to let go of a dead relationship with his ex-wife who cheated on him. Intertwined with these issues are Pat’s battle with mental illness. As Pat deals with these problems, he finds himself in a relationship with widow Tiffany Maxwell, a woman with mental health and relationship issues as well. Pat’s relationship with Tiffany falls into the category of a sentimental and romantic plot. Had Solitano and Maxwell’s gender roles been reversed, the film would easily qualify as a woman’s film.
Graves and Engle offer the term “male weepies” to deal with role reversals such as found in Silver Linings Playbook, defining them as, “Domestic melodramas fitting many of the characteristics of the woman’s film genre but with a male in the lead role” (303), and citing films such as Love Story and Kramer vs Kramer. The role reversal is there, but should that alone keep the genre “woman’s film” around?
It is arguable the term “woman’s film” is outdated because men and women experience many of the same problems characterized with the woman’s film whether it is domestic concerns or romantic relationships. While it can be argued that “male privilege” affords men a different experience than women, this alone does not seem enough of a reason to limit films to traditional gender roles, particularly in light of developments of sexual orientation and gender identification.
The term “woman’s film” also seems outdated from a business perspective. Hollywood targets films to different demographics but why limit a film’s potential audience by saying it is aimed at women? Terms such as drama and romantic comedy seem more appropriate for films such as Silver Linings Playbook than a “woman’s film.” Silver Linings Playbook is an entertaining and stimulating film that addresses the human experience, rather than the male or female experience, reinforcing the idea that the genre of the “woman’s film” has lost its meaning, just as traditional gender roles have.
Graves, Mark and F. Bruce Engle. Blockbusters: A Reference Guide to Film Genres. Greenwood,