Jun 14, 2002

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

Is there a double standard when it comes to evaluating "chick flicks" compared to male-oriented action and war films? According to one critic, we incorrectly assign more value to the drama of male bonding than we do to the female bonding portrayed in such films as Divine Secrets of the YaYa Sisterhood.

Such a double standard may indeed exist, but you can't prove it with this film. The reasons for its problems have everything to do with the structure upon which it depends.

Most notable is the use of the storyteller. A group of women kidnap the heroine, who is feuding with her mother, and proceed to tell her the story of the mother's life.

The first rule of the storyteller structure is that the present tense story must be more interesting than the past story. Why? Because the act of telling the story should lead the hero to learn something and solve something now. Otherwise, there's no point in jerking the audience forward and backward.

This first rule is broken right from the start when the heroine is kidnapped by the mother's friends and flown south. This action is so ridiculous that the writer/director doesn't even show it, in hopes, I assume, that the audience will somehow overlook the contrivance of the setup.

Once trapped in her new location, the heroine doesn't call the police or get the hell away from these idiots. She calmly listens as they tell her information about her mother that the heroine would already know because she lived in the same house.

The present problem is dealt with by the equivalent of a group therapy session and solved by nothing more than the mother and daughter saying they are sorry. The past story of the mother's life is filled, in contrast, by death, alcoholism, and a moment of despair and insanity when she beats her children.

The past story is supposed to show the audience and the heroine the reasons for the mother's failures. But other than the one scene where the mom hits her children, virtually every scene shows how wonderful she is.

The deeper issue here is not whether "chick flicks" are devalued, but rather how you dramatize family life. Action and war films have it easy; they show life and death situations. Nobody mentions that the vast majority of the audience will never encounter these situations.

They will encounter growing and living within a family. And how they deal with the conflicts of that experience will determine whether they have a good life or not.

The lesson here is clear: use the storyteller form correctly or you will heighten the sense that we are watching false or petty drama.