Death of a Hollywood Cliché
Confessions of a Shopaholic, a romantic comedy starring Isla Fisher opening today, has got a serious case of bad timing. Not only is the happy-go-lucky tale of a journalist who begins dispensing financial advice while $16,000 in the hole set before credit-card debt was a national emergency, it’s also an artifact from a time before magazines were downsizing like gastric-bypass patients. Shopaholic may be the last hurrah for one of Hollywood’s most time-tested archetypes—the sassy magazine editor as romantic-comedy heroine.
It’s so easy and fun you can get hired, like Rebecca does in Shopaholic, on the strength of a “brilliant” piece you penned smashed on tequila.
As with appletinis and the entire He’s Just Not That Into You book-movie complex, the recent proliferation of movie editrixes can be blamed largely on Sex and the City—Carrie Bradshaw established “columnist” in the popular imagination as an ultra glamorous, supremely feminine profession in which schmoozing, shtupping, and shopping constituted high-paying work.
Other films burnishing the perks of magazine work soon followed, including How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (Kate Hudson gets paid to seduce, reject, love Matthew McConaughey), 13 Going on 30 (Jennifer Garner lives out her creatively rewarding childhood dream of editing a teen magazine), Hitch (Eva Mendes’ gossip columnist steals Will Smith’s heart), The Devil Wears Prada (abused assistant Anne Hathaway still scores free designer clothes, makeover), and on the small screen Lipstick Jungle (Kim Raver finds time to run pop-culture magazine Bonfire while screwing a hottie half her age). Shopaholic follows in these footsteps: A young woman, Rebecca Bloomwood, takes a job at Successful Savings, becomes instantly famous, attends swanky parties in Miami, black-tie affairs in New York and lands her hunky editor as a life partner.
Of course, Carrie Bradshaw wasn’t the first celluloid career girl to make her living with words, but she was the first to make it seem fabulous. During romantic comedy’s golden age, in the 1930s and ‘40s, if a leading lady had a job, it was often as a reporter. Rosalind Russell in the ultimate zinger-fest His Girl Friday, Katharine Hepburn in Woman of the Year, Barbara Stanwyck in Frank Capra’s poor-guy-tries-to-do-good film Meet John Doe, and Jean Arthur in Frank Capra’s poor-guy-tries-to-do-good film Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. But in these films, reporting wasn’t all Manolos and celebrity run-ins—it was razor-sharp banter and a meager paycheck. Then in 1957, came the godmother of all glamorous movie-magazine editors—Kay Thompson’s Maggie Prescott in Funny Face—and a meme was born, though it took a few more decades to evolve.
If Shopaholic and its ilk are short on the paltry pay, long on the stilettos, that’s partially thanks to the fact that very few people have a clear idea of what an editor actually does all day (or what they get paid to do it). The title has become shorthand for a creative, fun, professional white-collar job that involves very few set tasks. Since the particulars of the profession are so little-known, screenwriters are free to present magazine work (inaccurately, it sadly turns out) as the ultimate fantasy, which requires employees to attend fancy fetes and photo shoots, groom and gossip compulsively, date handsome men and spend zero time on e-mail. It’s so easy and fun you can get hired, like Rebecca does in Shopaholic, on the strength of a “brilliant” piece you penned smashed on tequila.
Nice work, if you can get it—so long as you don't much like working with men. The fictional publications in these films don't have many fellas, and certainly no heterosexual ones, on staff. Neither, it turns out, do most real-life women’s or fashion magazines, but that only makes the setting more ideal. (For all the publishing fantasies that appear onscreen—Anna Wintour’s second assistant is not raiding the fashion closet—there are some clichés screenwriters understand.) In a dude-free zone, whatever authority and responsibility the heroine has is always of the least-threatening kind: The only people she’s empowered to yell at are other women. Shopaholic is the exception that proves the rule. The magazine Rebecca works for does have men on staff—one of them is her boss.
With magazine jobs disappearing with every Dow downtick, Shopaholic could be one of the last films to celebrate print journalism as a cushy gig. At the very least, with fewer jobs in the industry, there should be fewer books inspired by working in it. Without source material like Candace Bushnell’s Sex and the City, Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada and Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic, the genre will be seriously depleted. Writers, after all, write what they know (even if they embellish the perks a bit) and, increasingly, that’s not magazines. But, hey, a romantic comedy starring an ultra-chic web editor should be here any day now.
Willa Paskin is a writer and former editor of Radar magazine. She lives in New York City.