There's a "gotcha" moment in Ice Princess where the entire philosophical grounding of feminism falls to its knees in the service of Disney family entertainment. A tired-looking Joan Cusack, who plays a single mom with annoying determination, discovers a pouffy red Spandex figure-skating outfit in the spilled contents of her Harvard-bound daughter's backpack. She holds it with outstretched arms as if it were hazardous material, dumbfounded by her disappointment.
In this mom's-eye view, which is set up as the fuddy-duddy spouting of time-worn wisdom '- as if she were saying that girls shouldn't take gym class when they have their periods '- she thinks smart girls are well served by their lonely, bitter teenage years. All they have to do is wait until they grow up, and they'll get the best end of the deal. In the movie universe, that means they eventually get to flower and turn into Bea Arthur.
In Hollywood's corruption of that smart-movie-girl genre, these potential heroines want to grow up to be Michelle Pfeiffer. A trio of new releases in theaters is now assaulting us with modern-day fables about talented females who really just want to be pretty. Michelle Trachtenberg's character in Ice Princess might be a physics genius, but she drools over the prospect of being graceful and popular. Sandra Bullock's Gracie Hart loses all of her clumsy toughness in Miss Congeniality 2 to fully embrace her inner diva. And the whip-smart college girls who aced the SATs in the low-budget indie D.E.B.S. buff their nails and trim the hems on their miniskirts, all while learning to be government spies in a supersecret academy.
Whatever happened to gangly misfits? It was only a few years ago that Trachtenberg was giving life to that awkward preteen inspiration Harriet the Spy. Now, in Ice Princess, Trachtenberg's character tries the line that ice skating is actually a sport that requires extreme physical prowess, but that belies the point that she's really just caught up in how she looks when she's on the ice. She feels pretty, she says, and that's all that matters. So screw Harvard, the eating disorders the film makes light of, the cheating it almost condones and the rampant bitchiness. This girl wants to wear a flashy dress and get the cute guy.
The D.E.B.S. squad of Gen Y beauties '- Jordana Brewster, Sara Foster, Meagan Good, Devon Aoki and Jill Ritchie '- is at least buffeted by appearing in an obvious spoof by director Angela Robinson, but that may get lost on any tweens who just see the eye candy. In this comic-book adventure, the sassy future sleuths are dressed up like cheerleaders and act like snooty sorority girls. Sure, they run around with guns and solve international crimes, but all they really want to do is find a cute guy and buy new clothes.
Bullock was never exactly an ugly duckling, but her characters have always been a little off-kilter until this sequel, for which she could have been replaced easily by Reese Witherspoon. What's a 12-year-old going to do with Miss Congeniality 2? There's no empowerment here in the tale of a star FBI agent who will do anything '- even demean herself at a beauty pageant '- to solve her case.
The sequel's only weak attempt to make a moral point comes from a freckled young girl who approaches the now-famous Gracie Hart on a book tour and asks her to come to her class to get all the morons off her back who tease her for being odd. Hart, fully embracing a life of flair and style straight out of Paris Hilton's book, tells the girl she'll do a lot better in the world if she pulls her hair out of her face with some ribbons. Not to give away too much of the "plot," but later, after Hart gets back her old FBI self, she goes to tell the girl it's okay after all to let her hair fall in her eyes. Cue soothing music.
Hollywood used to ignore girls, focusing its efforts instead on preteen boys who go repeatedly to special-effects movies. Then suddenly the industry found a viable niche in the opposite sex, which spends a considerable amount on movie tickets '- not to mention clothes, accessories and music. Pretty-girl movies flooded the market, mostly enchanted Cinderella tales of one sort or another. The girls in these movies were always flighty and beautiful '- perfect specimens of girlhood. The "smart" ones, like Witherspoon in Legally Blonde, were not exactly intellectuals, but rather were belatedly given credit for the amount of brain power it takes to put together an outfit.
The sassier coming-of-age tales of imperfect teens '- and what real teens aren't imperfect? '- have always been left to indie films and serious dramas, where maybe they're best left. Not many kids go to see these, of course, but the movies have their effect on reflective adults. And maybe that's good enough. Vulnerable girls in the throes of adolescence get enough truth from their lives and don't need movies to exploit it for them. Better to watch the cartoon makeovers and date movies of the pretty girls than to watch their own lives distorted for evil gain.
iVillage Mood Meter: Will make you want to protest Hollywood studios by burning your bra
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Stars: Michelle Trachtenberg, Joan Cusack, Kim Cattrall
Director: Tim Fywell
Screenwriters: Meg Cabot, Hadley Davis
Producers: Karen Glass, William W. Wilson III
Release date: March 18
Miss Congeniality 2
Stars: Sanda Bullock, Regina King, Treat Williams
Director: John Pasquin
Screenwriters: Marc Lawrence, Katie Ford, Caryn Lucas
Producers: Bruce Berman, Mary McLaglen
Release date: March 24
Stars: Jordana Brewster, Sara Foster, Meagan Good
Director/screenwriter: Angela Robinson
Producer: Larry Kennar
Release date: March 25 in New York and Los Angeles; later nationwide