I was watching TV the other night, and there was a commercial for Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants came on, with the critic's glowing praise, "It's Stand By Me for girls!"
No. As part of a group of girls who watched it ritually and tried to decide who was whom, I can attest that Stand By Me is, in fact, Stand By Me for girls.
I haven't read Sisterhood yet, but I had a chance to see the movie (which is the subject of the praise, anyway) in an early showing during the publicity phase. The only similarities are that they are coming of age films, and that they are about four friends. The messages in them are very different, and not on girl/boy lines.
On Stand By Me/The Body
Stand By Me, based on the Stephen King novella, The Body, is about four twelve year old boys in a small town (the movie places the town in Oregon; the novella in Maine). It is set in the past, and the narrator is an adult who is coming to grips with what happened to one of the others, and getting a bit of perspective on things. The story is that four boys overhear one of the older brothers mention that he accidentally found the body of a missing boy their age. The decide to hike up the railroad tracks to see the body. On the way, the come up against the fact that they are about to go into the tracked system of high school, which will split up the gang, and that they are more or less on their own.
There is cameraderie in the movie, and the boys have a bit of an adventure that changes them, but at heart, it's not about friendship. It's about life and death, and the sometimes thin line that separates them. Ultimately, all four boys are kind of "absorbed" into Gordie. The novella is even clearer about this than the movie--at one point, Gordie says that he remembers being "that boy" and is chilled to catch himself thinking, "Which boy?" Teddy and Vern, instead of just being in dead end jobs and dull lives, are literally dead (Vern in a fire that he may or may not have set; Teddy in a car accident that was definitely his fault. Both take several other people with them). But the movie is still fairly clear about it--Gordie is the last one, the one to tell the story, the one who learned. (Actually, one of the few cases where I'm siding with a director above an author is that King says he saw Chris as the hero of the novella, while Reiner said it was Gordie. I think King was seeing so much through Gordie's eyes that he didn't realize Gordie is the one who comes out of the thing changed by his experiences.)
The story, in both the book and the movie, is about mortality and achievement despite mortality. The achievement part is important. One of the most profound moments is when Gordie says he's going to skip out of the college courses because he doesn't want to hang out with "a bunch of pussies," and Chris calls him an asshole for choosing his friends over a decent education, because the former will drag him down there forever while the latter will get him out. Gordie later balances this out, not by saying, "You know, I don't care about the future, and am going to stick with you," but by convincing Chris that he, too, can get out, and helping him do it. They haven't seen one another for quite a long while when the movie begins (it's unclear just when the book begins, though it seems to be quite awhile after Chris's death, as Gordie speaks of it as a past event, and talks about going out to cry, so his wife wouldn't see him). SBM is a story about accomplishing things and not accepting them as they are, and friendship is something that allows two of the four boys to do that.
On The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants
SotTP, based on the Anne Brashares novel of the same name, is about four girls who were born the same week (their mothers were apparently in Lamaze together), who have always helped one another through everything. Just before they are going to spend their first summer apart, they find a pair of jeans that miraculously fits them all, and they decide that they will mail the jeans around to their various locations and tell one another what happens while they're wearing them. One (Lena) is going to Greece to spend time with her grandparents, another (Bridget) is going to soccer camp in Mexico, the third (Carmen) is going to spend the summer with her divorced father, and the fourth (Tibby) has to stay home and work, while she's making a documentary. It's narrated in the very slight future (presumably), and takes place in contemporary times. Carmen, the narrator, still seems to be a teenager when the narration takes place.
The movie splits into a kind of anthological format, giving the story of each girl and her time with the jeans. The premise is that things will happen to them while wearing the magical pants. In Greece, shy Lena meets a boy. Outgoing Bridget decides to get a little frisky in Mexico. Carmen discovers to her great distress that her father is re-marrying. Tibby meets a sick little girl. Each learns something, and each does take some action.
I don't dislike SotTP. It was pretty good, if sort of blatantly emotionally manipulative in Tibby's plot. I liked the actresses and the stories were okay. I especially liked Carmen finally telling off her dad when she'd been missing for a day and when she came home, instead of frantically searching for her, he's sitting down to a pleasant dinner with his stepfamily. I'd have thrown a rock, too. That the premise of the magical jeans never stops being dopey isn't problematic; I am, after all, still part of a group that sorts M&Ms and eats them by a strict code. ;) Girls--and grown women--and I'd guess boys and grown men, too--like silly, dopey rituals, and everyone wearing the same awesome pair of jeans is no dumber than anything else... though what bothered me about them is what bothers me about the rest: SotTP is largely about things that happen to people. They're friends because of their mothers. The pants come out of nowhere. Tibby's new friend just appears. Lena stumbles into a romance. Carmen's father throws her a curveball. Only Bridget takes things into her own hands, and she does it pretty stupidly, and her plotline ends with talking about something that happened to her (her mother's death) and how her actions were about coping with it. Carmen's story, ultimately, is about her friends helping her learn to deal with things better. Tibby's is definitely about acceptance. Lena's actually involves some assertiveness, but it's kept squarely in the romantic arena.
While this actually is an important thing--things do happen to us, after all, and we need to learn to cope, and friends do help--what bothers me about the classification of SotTP as "Stand By Me for girls!" is that SBM is about going out and making things happen--also an important skill. So if SBM is for boys, the message is that a movie about making things happen and fighting against fatalism is for boys, while a movie about letting things happen and learning to accept things with the help of your friends is for girls. See what I'm getting at?
It's not the stories that are gendered. Boys and girls both need both lessons, and experience both kinds of friendship. While I could associate with the funny rituals and total stick-togetherness of the Sisterhood, I could also very much identify with the "band together or die" mentality of the boys in SBM--anyone who's grown up bright in a small town can, regardless of gender (or race or anything else). I can recognize the need to accept, and I can also recognize the need to refuse to accept. Balance, people, balance.
And it's not just the critic. SotTP was blatantly referred to as a "girls' movie" by a woman of my acquaintance, when a boy wondered if he might like to go. I'll grant that a boy probably would have felt uncomfortable, but that's sad to me--I can't imagine being told that I wouldn't like SBM because "It's really more of a boys' movie." And boys probably could get something out of the message of learning to kind of accept things and get on with it. (If they could get past the girly clothing rituals, of course, but hey, I got past the boyish penis jokes; they can deal with a pair of jeans.)
There are just things that annoy me.