Why the Footloose Remake’s Anthem Was Not “Let’s Hear It for the Girl!”

I am a huge fan of 80s movies and although it wasn’t Great Cinema, I really think 1984’s Footloose was one of the best. It had toe-tapping music, fun dance sequences and a great teenage rebelliousness storyline. Plus the movie had the great fortune to snag a young Kevin Bacon for one of his first starring roles. What could be better?

Consequently, when I discovered that they were going to remake Footloose, I was a bit put off. What was the point? What added value could a new movie bring to the table? However, when I heard that the starring roles were going to be played by dancers and they were keeping the old music while adding some new, I thought, “Why not?” It will be fun. And it was. The two stars, Julianne Hough and Kenny Wormald, were entertaining to watch, the music was good, the dancing was enjoyable and Dennis Quaid was, per usual, quite wonderful. However, it was a letdown. As many reviewers have pointed out, the new movie is almost exactly like the old one. No one took any chances nor did they provide new insights or interpretations.

There was a moment at the beginning of the movie though when I thought they might take it in a new direction. One of the few changes the remake made was that it showed the prequel events that led to the town ban on dancing and loud music. After a night of dancing and drinking, the son of the preacher and four friends got in a car accident that took their lives. Then, in a town council meeting full of brimming emotion, the Dennis Quaid character persuaded the town elders that the sins of dancing, drinking and staying out late must be halted so that the kids who were still alive could remain safe.

In that moment of banning freedom (as it were), the movie focused on Ariel, the preacher’s daughter. You could see that even in her youth and sorrow for her brother, she knew that this was a bad decision, that it was made out of grief and not, as stated, for safety. That moment of emphasis on Ariel’s feelings was so full of possibility that I actually sat up and thought, “Well, this could be interesting!” But they blew it. Instead of being edgy and focusing on Ariel’s perspective, they put the story right where it was in 1984: on the boy.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that one of the movie’s big show-stopping musical numbers is called “Let’s Hear It for the Boy”. Footloose has always been Ren’s story. Ariel is a pivotal character but we get only glimpses into her psyche and the reasons behind her behavior. Does she really care for her older, rough and tumble boyfriend or is she just with him to piss off her father? Is her interest in Ren because she likes him personally or is it because he’s the new boy in town who is willing to upset and challenge her father? Are there other ways in which she rebels or is it just about sex? What is behind her suicidal gestures (taken much more seriously in the original movie than in the remake)? How did Ariel learn to dance? None of these questions get answered because Ariel exists mostly to give Ren something to strive for. She provides him with a focal point for his rebellion but she is not important in and of herself. Case in point: Ren’s friend Willard gets almost as much screen time as she does.

That right there is what is wrong with so many of the movies in theatres. Women usually are merely the window dressing to men’s stories. The richness of most women’s lives is nowhere to be found. And let’s be honest, there aren’t many women there in the first place. Just go look at the cast lists for any of the top grossing movies this weekend (or last weekend or the weekend before that, etc.) and you’ll find that they are dominated by men. Given that women are over 51% of the population, doesn’t that strike you as a bit odd? When you realize that girls and women buy movie tickets in exactly the same numbers as boys and men, does that even make much sense? You’d think that Hollywood was run by men or something.

But more to the point and in all seriousness, what is the marginalization of the female experience saying to women in general and girls in particular? This has all been gone over before and the short answer is: nothing good. The research points to girls losing their voices at around the age of 9, women’s roles are circumscribed to the point that it’s mostly about family, there is an oversexualization of girls that leads to body image problems, women are clustered in the pink collar ghetto, etc., etc., etc. I could bore you with a lot of statistics but my overall point here is that not only is making women’s movie roles invisible or simply diminished bad for the overall health of our culture (boys and men don’t benefit either!) but it’s dreadful storytelling!

The remake of Footloose had an opportunity. They could have been fairly radical and rebellious (which wasn’t that the whole point of the plot?) and told us Ariel’s story. How much more interesting would it have been if her character had been explored in such depth that by the time Ren came to town, we actually cared about whether Ariel would get her chance to shine? We would have cheered her breakup with the boyfriend not because it was a necessary plot twist in order for her to be with Ren but because we wanted something better for her. Ariel’s confrontation and subsequent reconciliation with her father would have been earned (and even emotional) rather than shoehorned in.

And maybe, just maybe, we could have seen how Ariel used dancing to figure out who she was and who she wanted to be. We could have seen how dancing led her to become more emotionally and sexually intimate with Ren (you know, that thing the town elders were afraid would happen) so that their relationship felt real rather than forced. And we could have seen the joy that dancing brought to a girl who lived her formative years hampered by grief and repression. If the movie had transformed itself into “Let’s Hear It for the Girl” it might actually be worth remembering. I might have even paid to see it again.

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