Academic journal article Genders

Queen Latifah, Unruly Women, and the Bodies of Romantic Comedy

Academic journal article Genders

Queen Latifah, Unruly Women, and the Bodies of Romantic Comedy

Article excerpt

Bodies, stardom, narratives

[1] The questions that compel this essay concern the relationship between bodies and narratives: the narratives available to certain bodies and the disruptive impact of those bodies on narratives. My focus is the embodiment of the spunky heroine of the romantic comedy film--the feisty screwball leading lady whose excessive speech, aspirations, and energy have endeared her to generations of cinema lovers and to feminist film theory as well, which has celebrated her as woman-on-top and fast-talking dame. Earlier versions of this film character were played by the likes of Rosalind Russell, Barbara Stanwyck, Carole Lombard, and Katherine Hepburn, the later versions by Meg Ryan, Julie Roberts, Drew Barrymore, and Jennifer Aniston. As this list suggests, the excessiveness of this heroine is proscribed by the cultural ideals of white femininity, which in turn is pictured through very select bodies. While feminist film scholarship has long acknowledged the power of the unruly woman in comedy, this scholarship has glossed over the ways in which race in particular enables the unruliness of this character and intersects with class ideals in the picturing of this heroine. Using the star persona of Queen Latifah as a case study, this essay centers on how the romantic comedy narrative handles the sexuality of the unruly woman who is black, or conversely, the narratives available for racial unruliness when it is female.

[2] The traditional romantic comedy ends in the coupling of the unlikely couple, but the pleasure of the narrative--and its feminist appeal--is the lively, quarrelsome give-and-take of the courtship, fired by the struggle for egalitarianism between the unruly woman and the man who is her match. This film genre has proven remarkably resilient since its formulation in the 1930s, retaining its original formula but shape-shifting to accommodate social change and contemporary issues (Krutnik 131-37; Paul 126-28; Preston 227-29). As a result, following a decline in the 1970s and early 1980s, romantic comedy has seen a steady resurgence since 1984, and it remains one of the most prevalent versions of heterosexual romantic ideology.

[3] Stardom is a key issue here because these comedies register cultural wishes and fantasies about the bodies of heterosexuality. As popular culture's most salient narrative of marriage, it is no surprise that romantic comedy shares the ideals Chrys Ingraham describes in the representations of contemporary wedding culture: "what counts as beautiful is white, fair, thin, and female" (81). Confirming this configuration, the women of color who have starred in this genre--Halle Berry, Jennifer Lopez, Gabrielle Union, Nia Long, Sanaa Lathan--are light-skinned women with Caucasian features and the bodies of fashion models. When the Bridget Jones films came out (Bridget Jones Diary, 2001; Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, 2004), there was nearly obsessive press attention to Rene Zellweger's weight gain for the roles, even though the extra thirty pounds put her at an average weight and size for most women (Brennan and Schwabauer). Another telling example is the 2002 runaway hit My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which begins with a heroine who does not fall into the classic romantic-body template. So the narrative is embedded with a makeover subplot that irons out her more stereotypically ethnic features--even though the narrative is focused on ethnic comedy. The popularity of this film, a low-budget venture that reaped unexpectedly large box-office returns, may have resided in the appeal of a star (Nia Vardalos) who was not Hollywood-style glamorous, but its romantic plot is triggered when she becomes not only thinner but less "Greek." Even lesbian romantic comedies, which have a better record with race, tend to rely on Hollywood's ideal for leading ladies in films such as Better Than Chocolate (1999), Saving Face (2004), Chutney Popcorn (1999), and But I'm a Cheerleader (1999). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.