Shades of Middlebrow

Jason Sperb has an excellent and thorough review of Barbara Klinger's Beyond the Multiplex; I have started my way through the book and while I may have more to say about it at some point, I'll agree that it's a valuable and fascinating read. But this passage raised my eyebrows in critical suspicion:
Both genres [women's film and chick flick]...have been accused of delivering indulgent romantic fantasies and cheap emotional thrills. Their various associations with things feminine, from protagonists and plots to viewers, have often wrongly consigned them to a low aesthetic status.

This is a claim you often hear at least about the women's film, but is it true? Moreover, does it apply to the chick flick? On one level, it depends on what means by the qualifier "often." But if we take at face value some claim for representativeness, then the higher-brow reading formations (journalistic critics and the more consecrated slice of film culture) are actually kinder to chick flicks than they are the male-flick counterpart, the action film. Now it's true that each can have its lowbrow and highbrow entries (Down With Love vs. The Hours; Armageddon vs. The Matrix), but if you look at critics' favorites or Oscar nominated films or whatever "official" film-culture benchmark you choose, you are likely to see a valuing of the story and character development that chick flicks trade in. If Four Weddings and a Funeral does not make the pantheon of the contemporary canon, neither does it signal trash in the way that Norbitt or Fast and Furious do. Which is not to say that aesthetic judgments aren't gendered in any way, but it is to assert that high:low::male:female does not map nearly as easily as Klinger suggests here.

I will grant that film scholars pay far less attention to the chick flick than action films or even blockbuster low comedy (in Klinger's words, "the chick flick continues to fly under the aesthetic radar"), but in some ways this is the result of scholars' populism, a championing of lowerbrow cultural forms as socially meaningful, politically valid, and even aesthetically interesting. What that kind of populism cannot make much sense of is the range of middlebrow tastes, whose class pedigree does not allow a simple championing. It's one reason I'm interested in the social problem film: talk about a genre that no one wants to champion aesthetically. Ultimately, I suspect that this constraint of populism leads Klinger to read a high/low divide where in fact there is a high/middle/low terrain.


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