Yes, I admit it: I went to see She’s All That over the weekend. I was pleasantly surprised — not by the predictable plot, cardboard characters, or expected romantic cheesiness, but by a strange art subplot running through the film.
Not only is the title character, Laney (Rachael Leigh Cook) — the “she” who’s “all that” — a high school art student, but a main theme has to do with the way she releases her emotions through her art. There are scenes in her painting class, scenes with her art teacher and art students, and a long, surreal scene dealing with performance art.
But the strangest thing was the accuracy of certain parts of the film. As an artist, I’m used to noticing artist stereotypes in movies and other media. Not that this is unique — everyone can find stereotypes of the groups they are familiar with in any movie that includes them. But She’s All That was surprising because while some art stereotypes were played up for laughs, others were fairly realistic.
Ignoring the premise of the movie — that Laney, as an artist, is the least cool girl in school and must be changed — some artistic points were presented well.
The first thing that surprised me was that Laney’s art, showed often, was very good. Whoever created it must have been a good artist, since the work not only fit into the storyline of the film but functioned well on its own.
Often artwork portrayed in the media is traditional in a condescending effort to make the audience relate to it better. But Laney’s work was good, and contemporary — which unfortunately made a problem of its own. Laney, and to a lesser extent every other student in the class, was doing work on a college, if not professional, level. Their art was almost certainly not created by high school students, and high school classes with so many artistically gifted students are rare. So the stereotype was pushed to the opposite extreme.
Laney herself was a pretty three-dimensional character in the film, but she fit into another artistic stereotype — that of the tortured, depressed, lonely artist. Short of dressing her in black and putting a fake goatee on her, the film could not have emphasized this stereotype more. Her artist friends, however, who appeared in a coffeehouse-type place in the aforementioned performance art scene, were all dressed in black and sporting goatees. They functioned as the epitome of a common artistic joke.
The joke is this, often repeated throughout mainstream media: that artists, in their struggle to be cool and avant-garde, have accepted as true art only stuff that is bullshit. This is the strongest artistic stereotype of all, and is a contributing reason why the public can have a somewhat skewed view of contemporary art.
In She’s All That, this comes out in the performance art — which functions only as comic relief. Laney, her face painted blue, dances around on stage with two other artists, reciting cryptic poetry and “emerging” from a cocoonish plastic sheet. The stereotypical artistic audience, of course, takes this ridiculous display seriously and loves it.
What’s worse is the scene that follows: Zach (Freddie Prinze Jr.), the ultra-cool guy who’s trying to win Laney over and make her cool too, gets introduced as a new artist and is forced on stage for an impromptu performance. Having no art experience, the only thing he can think to do is kick his hackey sack around dramatically. Everyone loves his “art,” generating laughs from us, the real audience, over how easily fooled the artists are.
It’s frustrating that writers can look at one point they see in modern art — its seeming ease to produce — and ignore the fact that there has to be some intelligent, deeper meaning behind it.
It’s clear that when stereotypes — whether they be cultural, religious, racial, career-related, or gender-based — are portrayed in movies, most of the audience realizes they’re not real. Few comedies could exist without playing into some stereotype. They’re easy laughs. The writers can assume we all think the same way about a certain group of people, so they don’t have to take the time to develop concrete, unique character traits for them. Movies about high school, targeted at teenagers, are often the worst culprits.
She’s All That treats artists well compared to the stereotypical jocks, ditzes, snobs, and nerds scattered throughout the film. But I wonder about the small percentage of the audience that doesn’t realize these are character shortcuts not true to life — especially the artists. I mean, for such a small group, we sure have a lot of stereotypes that can be applied.
Those stereotypes abound: the artist as homosexual; the artist as depressed; the artist as insane (a trait often attributed scientifically to artists, writers, and composers posthumously); the artist as a slacker, contributing nothing to society; the “starving artist.”
But the greatest artist myth, the only stereotype found in Laney, is the artist as an inspired but emotionally troubled loner, struggling to delve into the great mysteries of the universe through art.
This is not necessarily a negative stereotype. It romanticizes the artist and creates an image of a creative seed inside someone trying to burst through. This is found commonly in popular media even amidst other stereotypes. Recent episodes of Felicity and Dawson’s Creek, for example, have both Felicity (Keri Russell) and Joey (Katie Holmes) suddenly realizing that they have to be artists, that they are living a lie if they do not “follow their hearts” and immerse themselves in art. For Felicity, this meant almost dropping a promising career in medicine on a whim, before she discovered she could still create art in her spare time. This shows an urge that it seems non-artists cannot fathom, that the artist has to pursue art at the cost of all else.
An interesting side note is that all of these characters are female. This is actually indicative of the trends in the art world, which is becoming much less male-dominated. In recent years, an increasing majority of students pursuing art in school are female. Whether Laney’s, Felicity’s, and Joey’s fitting into this trend is an accident, a sign of research by the writers (doubtful), or another emerging stereotype, can’t be guessed. Certainly the “artistic soul” stereotype fits better into a feminine mold; I guess it’s too difficult for writers to portray the same artistic yearning in a heterosexual male.
While trying to present and disprove these stereotypes, I have to admit that each is partially true. Certainly there are a great number of artists who have a deep yearning for art above all else, just as a large portion of the art world is homosexual, and Van Gogh, Picasso, Poe, Plath, Schumann, and other creative geniuses were mentally disturbed. Like most stereotypes, these are based on grains of truth; but the understanding comes from realizing these grains are not all-encompassing. Maybe someday TV and movie writers will grasp this, but I’m not holding my breath.