What a Girl Wants (2003)


I should have been prepared for the look — equal parts shock, contempt, and suspicion — on the face of the woman who sold me my ticket to What a Girl Wants. Why would I, a guy with no girlfriend in sight, want to pay eight bucks for a tweener chick flick? I slunk into the theater. But I left with a bundle full of affirmation. What does a girl want? A boy. Of course.

Daphne Reynolds (Amanda Bynes) is a brash but lovable American teenager, with an ultra-cool yet ultra-stable rock-and-roller mom (Kelly Preston). Together, they live a comfortable, vaguely bohemian life at the foot of the picturesque Brooklyn Bridge in New York’s Chinatown. They work together (mom sings at weddings as daughter waits the tables), share hopes and dreams, and really love each other.

Daphne is hip but down to earth, pretty but an occasional and endearing bumbler. Luckily, her mistakes, like one she makes on the catering job in an early scene, only provide her with an opportunity to demonstrate her plucky ability to improvise, usually by dancing. The only thing wrong is the absence of her father, Lord Henry Dashwood (Colin Firth). A British aristocrat who does not know that he fathered a child with his American girlfriend in the Moroccan desert 17 years before, Dashwood is about to wed the suitably aristocratic Glynnis (Anna Chancellor). He is also about to get a visit that will change his life and shock a nation.

What a Girl Wants follows a comedy of manners formula, targeting snobbery, greed, and class-based myopia. Daphne’s arrival in London specifically challenges those who embody these flaws — Glynnis and her uptight daughter Clarissa (Christina Cole). During one slapsticky vignette, where Daphne climbs (actually, falls) over the wall of the tightly guarded manor, Glynnis believes their home is being invaded: “Those bloody paparazzi again!” A moment later, Glynnis mugs for the would-be-reporter’s camera — proof of her thinly disguised vanity.

Once inside, Daphne embraces her grandmother (Eileen Atkins), whereupon she’s scolded for such emotional display: “No hugs, dear. I’m British. We only show affection to dogs and horses.” The grandmother’s self-awareness signals her eventual redemption, as does Dashwood’s own decision to give up his hereditary seat in the House of Lords and run for office as a commoner. But none are wholly spared embarrassment by the Yankee incursion.

Despite the cuteness of the teenage star, there’s something downright aggressive about the Americanness this film promotes. Early on, Daphne bluntly announces her mission (and the film’s) to Clarissa: “You’ve seen Cinderella, right? Let me clue you in: I win.” Daphne represents the usual paradoxical American qualities (she’s both underdog and guaranteed winner) and will stop at nothing to conquer British pretension and repressed sexuality.

For a short time in the middle of the film, Daphne reconsiders the war she’s declared. She refines her manners, wears prissy dresses, and even neglects her new motorcycle-riding boyfriend, Ian (Oliver James), whose lower class status doesn’t reflect so well on her family’s reputation. It seems that taming herself — her usual behavior is, of course, not learned but natural — is the best way to win her father’s affection and assure his political success. But Daphne’s patience is short-lived, and besides, as the film’s argument goes, her real self is irrepressible. At a pivotal moment, Ian asks Daphne, “What happened to the old you? The real you.”

The rest of the movie provides this “real” Daphne the opportunity to bust out. Whenever possible, she expresses herself in public, with a rock soundtrack in the background. At a debutante ball, she unveils a slinky, form-fitting dress, cues up the band, and leads the party in a funky dance to James Brown’s “Get Up Off That Thing.” Later, she crashes the Royal Dress Show by accident, then struts her jeans-and-bare-midriff look on the runway, causing much jaw-dropping. Scene after scene contrasts Daphne with the uptight English girls, and the camera emphasizes that, despite her occasional Lucille Ballish clumsiness, Daphne is cooler, thinner, and just plain hotter than her secretly envious rivals.

“You’re miss cranky-pants, and I go with the flow,” Daphne informs Clarissa. The message here is that everyone wants to be real, with “American” spontaneity and on-display sexuality as the barometers of the real. But only a special few can admit it.

For men in What a Girl Wants, being “real” has something to do with honor and honesty. They too must choose authentic feelings over fake social customs. But mostly what they have to do is choose the right women and in so doing, fulfill that Cinderella fantasy. Firth, destined to be viewed as Darcy no matter what else he does (he’s played a version in the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice, and another in Bridget Jones’ Diary), is the ideal fellow to do this fulfilling.

Given that the movie argues for and celebrates an American imperialism of sorts, it’s not surprising that the politics of war factored into its advertising campaign, as Warner Brothers recently changed its print ad. The original version featured Bynes, U.S. flag adorning her tank top, flashing a peace sign at the camera. The new design shifts her arm so it hangs innocuously at her side, avoiding any possibility that she might be promoting peace, presumably in Iraq.

This may be a shrewd box office choice (and the film was number two on its opening weekend). But given Daphne’s rout of the British snobs — something the film so obviously relishes — it turns out that eliminating “peace” from this film’s iconography was not just safe politics, it was also just honest advertising.