The Hairpin Rom Com Club: She’s All That
by Chloe Angyal
Welcome back to The Hairpin Rom Com Club. It’s just like a book club, except you will not be expected to listen to anyone talk about their monogamous sexual partners, or, god forbid, children.
This week’s movie is She’s All That, starring Freddie Prinze Jr., Rachel Leigh Cook, and a cast full of late-nineties favorites. There’s Paul Walker as a frosted-tip jerk, Anna Paquin as a sexually frustrated private school girl slash fairy godmother, and Matthew Lillard playing Everything That’s Wrong With Reality Television.
We also have four criminally underdeveloped black sidekicks — four! Dulé Hill, Usher, Gabrielle Union, and Lil’ Kim are all in this movie, and they have seven lines combined. I’m exaggerating, but only just; She’s All That cast four famous black performers in one movie and gave them almost nothing to do.
She’s All That turns fifteen this year. For those of you who haven’t seen it, this movie is your basic My Fair Lady reboot, but without the musical numbers. Just kidding! She’s All That totally has a choreographed dance number close to the end of the film; it’s never explained, and occurs for no good reason except that the late nineties were a heady time. A teen movie could feature a pizza covered in pubes and an inexplicable dance number.
Our hero, Zach (Freddie Prinze Jr.) is a smart, athletic, popular guy who gets dumped by his hot and popular girlfriend Taylor after they return from spring break. In the immediate rebound period, Zach makes a bet with frenemy Dean that he can turn any girl on campus into prom queen just by virtue of dating her. Dean picks Laney, played by Rachel Leigh Cook (remember when all teen stars were required to have three names?), a geeky aspiring artist from a single-parent family.
In the process of the bet, Zach befriends Laney, and she discovers that he’s not the mindless jock she thinks he is. She learns to “let people in,” whatever that means. Zach learns to stop being afraid of the future and overcome the crushing burden of having to choose between Dartmouth, Harvard, Yale, and NYU. With the help of his sister, played by Anna Paquin, Zach gives Laney a makeover. Laney starts making friends and becomes a real contender for prom queen.
When Dean realizes that Zach might win the bet, he tells Laney about it, knowing this will cause her to end whatever relationship has developed between her and Zach. Laney blows the one f-word granted to a PG-rated film in a grand and dramatic fashion: “Am I a bet? Am I a FUCKING BET?” she yells in front of everyone, which 11-year-old me thought was so badass.
Of course, Zach and Laney reconcile in the end. As required by the law of all nineties teen movies, they make out to Sixpence None the Richer’s “Kiss Me.”
Mindy Kaling has a theory about romantic comedies: they’re a genre like science fiction. They take place in a universe that resembles the one we live in, but operates on different laws and logic.
This is certainly true of She’s All That. Their school has a DJ, and that DJ is Usher. Paul Walker smokes on campus, and in this shot, he does so next to a fellow student who appears to be approximately 107 years old.
Even now, 15 years later, he looks old enough to be my somewhat youthful father. In this universe, apparently, high school goes up to the 32nd grade.
She’s All That is a perfect example of how, in popular culture, male persistence in the face of female refusal is framed as romantic, desirable, and part of a healthy courtship. When Zach first tries to befriend Laney, he approaches her at school. She blows him off; he shows up at her workplace, where she tells him that “stalking is illegal in all 50 states.”
Next, he shows up uninvited to her house, and jokingly threatens to stay all day playing video games with her little brother — unless she consents to come to the beach with him. Later that night, when she says she can’t go to a party with him because she has to clean the house, he shows up again, this time with a soccer team tasked with cleaning her house. Now she has no excuse not to come out with him! She also has a troupe of complete strangers in her house. But now she can go to the party! Isn’t it charming how he won’t take no for an answer?
In the context of this movie, sure, it’s charming, I guess, with Freddie Prinze Jr’s big soulful eyes and very square jaw. He’s sweet as he threatens to camp out on her couch, unless she does what he wants, if affable threats are your thing. As viewers, we can suspend our disbelief and imagine we’d be cool with a bunch of fifteen-year-old boys we’ve never met cleaning our house — fifteen-year-old boys being known for their excellent hygiene and exceptional tidiness.
But the fact remains that Laney repeatedly tells Zach “no” and he repeatedly ignores her. Laney even uses the term “stalking,” and so does her best friend, but only to say, “The most popular guy in school is stalking you, and you aren’t the least bit curious?” Hardly the words of a concerned friend.
In a pivotal scene, Laney is painting in her basement studio, and Zach shows up (again, uninvited). She tell him the studio is private; he doesn’t listen. He just keeps walking down into the basement, because he really wants to talk to her. This is a recurring theme in rom coms: it’s a compliment when a hot guy doesn’t listen to your refusals. As Zerlina Maxwell notes, you see this trop in Say Anything, and The Notebook, and even in The Fault in Our Stars, which is very explicit about how the persistent, somewhat unwanted attention of a good-looking man is received by the teenage protagonist, Hazel, who muses that when “A nonhot boy stares at you relentlessly and it is, at best, awkward and, at worst, a form of assault. But a hot boy… well.” When a hot boy stares relentlessly, or shows up at your house and won’t take no for an answer, it’s a sign of how much he wants you. You’ll give in eventually, and you’ll be glad you did. The larger cultural implications of this are obvious: this is a soft sell of rape culture, and the intended audience is teenage girls.
The character of Laney Boggs is written as a proto-feminist. She’s concerned about social justice, and she’s a slightly less hostile version of 10 Things I Hate About You’s Kat Stratford, who was also unleashed on the world in 1999. Unlike Kat, she doesn’t have a reputation for kneeing men in the balls. But the two heroines are cut from the same opinionated lefty feminist cloth, which might explain why I loved them both as a middle-schooler. Laney also serves as half the template for Not Another Teen Movie’s fantastic parody of the angry-feminist-teen-girl archetype: “I don’t date… I don’t conform to typical high school norms, ok? I read Sylvia Plath. I listen to Bikini Kill. And I eat tofu. I’m a unique rebel.”
People keep telling Laney that she needs to learn how to have fun like a normal teenager. But she seems to be having her own version of a good time: painting, hanging out with her platonic guy friend, working with a performance art troupe. Her art teacher really believes in Laney, pushing her to apply to art school and praising her work.
Zach, our hero, spends the entire movie trying to make her see the error of her feminist ways — which are revealed, as the movie goes on, to be things that Laney uses to “shut people out,” not as genuine political or artistic interests. For those of us who hunger for feminist pop culture, it’s tempting to claim the appearance of Laney for the win column. It’s a two-steps-forward situation like 10 Things: we get a feminist heroine, but she’ll be tamed by the end of the movie. A feminist heroine with a feminist triumph at the end is rare in rom coms: instead, she gets the traditional, My Fair Lady victory (or, in Kat’s case, a Taming of the Shrew victory).
Our hero spends the entire movie trying to whittle down her resistance, and we’re meant to cheer when he eventually succeeds. Laney’s quip about another rom com based on My Fair Lady — Pretty Woman — makes a lot of sense, when you think about it. “I feel just like Julia Roberts at the end of Pretty Woman,” she says. “You know, except for the whole hooker thing.” Just as in Pretty Woman, our heroine here has been tamed by the end. She started out different — indeed, that’s the whole reason she’s picked as the subject of the bet, the fucking bet. She’s just different enough, in fact, that the late-nineties teen girls in the audience who were raised with feminism in the water, would want to be like her.
But by the end, it’s all the same: She’s All That ends just as My Fair Lady does, just as all Cinderella stories do, and even though we’ve been granted a feminist heroine, she’s happily comparing herself to the heroine in a Hollywood rom com that came out a decade earlier. The more things seem to have changed, the more they’ve stayed the same.
On the plus side, there is a choreographed dance number.
Chloe Angyal has a PhD in Media Studies and wrote her doctoral thesis about romantic comedies. She is Senior Editor at Feministing and a facilitator at The OpEd Project. You can read more of her writing here and follow her on Twitter at @chloeangyal.