I suggested to my team at work that we have an “ice breaker” question at the beginning of every team meeting. The intention of the ice breaker was to get to know each other better. One of the questions I asked my team was - what is your favourite film? You’d think I would have prepared a good answer for my own question. I didn’t. I explained that I decided on my favourite films as a teen and I never thought to change them. My favourite teen films being ‘80s classics Dirty Dancing and The Breakfast Club.
If I was to update my so-called favourite film, what would it be? I have asked myself if the best films can be judged by how many times you have watched them, and if that’s a fact, my favourite film might actually be 27 Dresses.
The premise of the film is simple. Katherine Heigl plays a woman with a type A personality and an unsatisfactory love life. In other words, the same role as she plays in almost any of her other films.
Her character, Jane, is always the bridesmaid and never the bride. She has been the bridesmaid 27 times, in fact, and she keeps all 27 dresses in a dedicated wardrobe in her apartment. She has a huge crush on her outdoorsy good guy boss and she has a sassy friend who deserves a spin off.
Enter James Marsden, or Kevin Doyle AKA Malcolm Doyle, the handsome yet troublesome stealth reporter. He has a penchant for aggressively pursuing Jane and being generally disparaging about marriage (relatable).
It’s also important to note that Jane has always been the helper and never the helped and raised her younger sister after their mum’s death. Her younger sister, Tess, is now a grown up brat and she captures the interest of outdoorsy boss man, George. Drama ensues when they become engaged and Jane becomes the reluctant maid of honour.
I will point out a couple of things-
1. I do own 27 actual dresses, this is a coincidence and I can fit many other pieces in my wardrobe, unlike Jane.
2. I’m not sure if this movie is actually any good and it makes me question flaws in the genre of romantic comedies, in general.
I love romantic comedies and I have difficulty reconciling that love with my values as a feminist. It’s obvious that rom coms often fall victim to tropes that were developed to make the stories palatable to a mass audience. Mainly an audience of women. The issue with 27 Dresses is that Jane spends all of her time serving men and brides.
Jane takes on the burden of emotional labour. The screenplay for 27 Dresses is written by a woman, and the film is directed by a woman, but this doesn’t save the film from some anti-feminist messages.
Jane never puts herself first. Her professional life and her personal life is dictated by her time serving others. If she is not fixing her baby bossman’s tie for him she is helping brides pick out their flowers.
“Marriage like everything good and wonderful is never easy. Cynicism on the other hand, is.” -Jane, 27 Dresses
This line is delivered to Kevin Doyle. He is also known by his reporting alias, Malcolm. His main job is to report on weddings in the area in the Commitments section of the newspaper. He also hates weddings and is generally a real downer about relationships. I don’t understand why someone who truly hates weddings is forced to report on them. Surely, Jane should take his job?
It’s weird that movies try to convince us that a man that gets your hackles up is the kind of man we ought to love. Surely we should value kindness and a partner who makes us laugh? Someone with whom we can work with throughout the difficulties of everyday life. But no, someone who constantly and aggressively questions our values is bang on the money for this rom com. It’s not uncommon that the romantic comedy film attempts to convince its viewer that if at first the pursuer doesn’t succeed, he should keep trying until he wears our main character down.
I don’t think the appeal of this rom com is the disjointed story of true love between the odd couple Jane and Kevin. Kevin isn’t especially likable for most of the film. He finds Jane’s diary left behind in a taxi that they share. He uses the diary to find her whereabouts to create another meeting between them. He could have used Jane’s contact details, which I’m sure are in the Filofax, to respectfully return it to her. Using her diary to essentially stalk Jane is dangerous behaviour that the film should not pass off as normal.
When the diary is returned Kevin has written in vivid that she must meet with him again. This is entitled and he is essentially defacing her diary. This action is not redeemed for me by his eventual gift of an electronic diary to Jane. Kevin could have easily won over Jane using manners and respect. The aggression he shows towards Jane is a hint of the type of controlling behaviour seen in abusive relationships that should never be normalized in media.
The worst thing that Kevin does is use Jane’s wedding obsession for a big story in the newspaper without her consent. Kevin says to Jane in his defense that he begged his editor not to run the story. Yet, he wrote the story in the first place, which disrespects Jane’s right to privacy. Kevin, in sum, is unwittingly written as a total jerk.
This film is not great media. It fails to subvert the genre. The cast are mainly white. There is one Latino character called Pedro. George acts as his mentor. This character is used as the punch line for a cheap joke when Tess employs him to clean George’s apartment in secret. There are also no queer characters at all. The film follows a formula that has rendered the film barely distinguishable from any other film in the genre.
It is the performances that hold together the film’s disjointed plot. Especially Katherine Heigl as Jane.
I’m not like Jane at all. I would love to be invited to weddings but I don’t get tears in my eyes thinking about a couple tying the knot. I don’t wish to get married myself. It’s not important to me. Weddings and marriage are very important to Jane, she isn’t a maid of honour for money nor sport. She behaves as the brides emotional dumping ground for one reason only—a genuine belief and love for the institution that is marriage.
She is, of course, entitled to that love. That’s the spark behind Jane as a character. Her devotion to the brides is a true passion. This character may be victim to feminine stereotypes but at least she is a fully fleshed out character. She is as neurotic as she is anal. She is as charming as she is flawed.
Jane’s determination to destroy Tess’s happiness is hard to watch but it speaks to insecurities that run deep. Jane raised Tess in the place of their mother who died when they were young. She feels that Tess has had everything handed to her and now Tess not only gets her man but she claims Jane’s one true fantasy — the perfect wedding in their mother’s wedding dress.
Tess has convinced George to marry her through manipulation and lies. Tess also feels completely entitled to Jane’s help and all aspects of Jane’s dream wedding, which she hoped to mirror on her parents wedding at the same venue and with the same dress.
The redeeming factor of this film is that at its heart it’s about a woman learning to say no. Jane is learning to stop providing endless emotional labour for others. She is learning to stop putting her life on hold. Her sister takes their mother’s dress and destroys it, using only parts of the original’s dress material to create a new poorly fitted dress. This is the final straw for Jane who abandons her role as the maid of honour.
This is a turning point in the film that sees Jane ferociously claim her right to put herself first. This message is what truly makes the film enjoyable.
I often joke that I have probably seen 27 Dresses 27 times. I have watched it again in preparation of this blog post and I still find it just as entertaining with a more critical lens. This film isn’t a great film but it’s an entertaining film with some dedicated performances. There is no need to have to defend what you enjoy in films. I don’t have to justify a love for a genre that suffers from a lot of major issues.
I can imagine a world where rom coms are written by women and for women. Where the characters are queer and racially diverse and more of an audience can relate to what they see on their screen. 27 Dresses was released in 2008 and we have made strides in films made for women and queer people with Man Up; Love, Simon; Set it Up; Bridesmaids; and The Incredible Jessica James being amongst the many films generally related to the chick flick or romantic comedy genre in some way. These films subvert the tropes of the genre and make for a more enjoyable watch.
I know that 27 Dresses can be considered good, but it could be so much better. It will always have a special place in my movie watching diet but I hope to see filmmakers continue to do better.
Ellen is the co-host of High Expectations Podcast with the lovely, Jaslyn. Their podcast is about sex, pop culture, relationships, and whatever else they feel like talking about. You can follow High Expectations on twitter @highexpodcast and on facebook at High Expectations Podcast. When Ellen is not recording she is writing her next comedy set, playing with her dog, and being addicted to lip balm.
We have watched only one Katherine Heigel film on the Cutaways so far, My Father the Hero. You can listen to it here.