All Hail the Queens (Beauty Shop, Miss Congeniality 2, Destiny’s Child, The Ashlee Simpson Show)

I’ve got female camaraderie on the brain and so, it seems, does everyone else. In researching the the Mitford sisters (amazing in their own right), I’ve also stumbled upon The Furious Lesbian, the badly titled (and rendered) biography of Mercedes de Acosta, a humorectomized if bold-as-love playwright and dyke at a time when most people didn’t even know the word lesbian, let alone utter it. A pining sadsack overall, de Acosta did know to hold real salons for the ladies, a tradition that should be immediately resuscitated — and not just on L Word nights.

On a more prosaic level, girls are doing something besides preening for the shall-we-say proverbial male gaze over at MTV. In the constant loop running of The Ashlee Simpson Show, Jessica Simpson freaks out not on behalf of her shoes nor her circus dog Daisy but her little miss sis botching up the Orange Bowl. “Oh, gawwwd. Take care of my sister! Please take care of her.” The most selfless and certainly the most authentic moment captured on video of this decade’s worst Daddy’s Little Girl, it renders Barbie nearly human. (Nearly, mind you; there’s a lot of plastic on that carcass).

Then there’s the Destiny’s Child song, “Girl.” The video is sure-fire. Open-eyed and earnest, Beyonce’s a human embodiment of lipgloss: jailbait-style sexy despite that too-slick veneer. She’s one of the few singers working the Hot97 circuit right now who actually sings from her belly rather than through her nose: Her “Work It Out” holds up against the finest her R&B; mothers ever let loose. Plus she still sings with Destiny’s Child even though she’s clearly making enough bucks on her own. The video itself, a Sex and the City homage to their enduring friendship, breaks me up even when I’m rushing in the morning. Decked out to the nines, the three prowl the city and counsel each other on their lousy relationships in that always-affecting minor key they sing in so gustily. Some lyrics:

Take a minute girl, come sit down
And tell us what’s been happening
In your face I can see the pain
Don’t you try to convince us that you’re happy

Girl, you don’t have to be hiding
Don’t you be ashamed to say he hurt you
I’m Your Girl, You’re My Girl, We’re Your Girls
Want You To Know That We Love You.

This time round, it’s the boys who are but mere eye candy, secondary to the primary relationship that’s being serenaded: the girls’ friendship. Um, is this MTV?

Actually, these moments speak to a little women’s-women trend found on mainstream movie screens right now, too. Take the largely unanticipated success of the Queen Latifah vehicle Beauty Shop, all about a you-know-what and starring and produced by Dana Owens herself. Or the anticipated but largely undeserving success of that piece of you-know-what Miss Congeniality 2, starring and produced by the Sandra Bullock, the reigning queen of the normally endearingly bad movie.

Congeniality is by all rights too lousy to waste much time discussing. Suffice it to say FBI Agent Bullock finds herself with a bad-ass partner (Regina King, who almost emerges unscathed from this clunker), and hijinks and shenanigans ensue. Also William Shatner is involved and the climactic scene takes place in a pirate theme park. Ye gods. Note please that pirates and William Shatner rank lower (or is that higher?) than stand-up in the comedy hierarchy of crap.

Beauty Shop is a much more entertaining way to fritter away two hours. Alicia Silverstone sports a wicked bad hillbilly accent and drops it like it’s hot; Alfre Neward drops Maya Angelou lyrics and African fabrics while she fries hair; Kevin Bacon drops an Austrian accent as a stylist adding a whole new family tree to his six degrees of separation (soooo much easier to connect him to Snoop Dog now). Latifah herself is easy-peezy as an Atlanta-based stylist who opens her own shop with a loan teased out of a follicly challenged bank officer’s split ends. She brings along her high-end white clients to her black neighborhood and supports a musically talented daughter’s high-priced education while she rescues her shiftless sister-in-law from a slide into street-walking. Oh, and she conducts as an afterthought a highly unconvincing love affair with jazz pianist Djimon Hounsou. (It’s always highly unconvincing when Latifah kisses boys.)

Weirdly, both movies buckle under a burden rarely found in Hollywood vehicles: overearnestness. True, the writing stinks to the high heavens of the unmistakable fragrance of Scripts By Committee 101. (Motto: Let no plot device remain unturned.) But the real problem stems from how every scene doggedly imparts some kind of lesson a la Davey and Goliath,though they’re hardly lessons little Davey might deliver. More like Gals! Women friendships deserve loyalty! and Hey, sister, men aren’t the be-all-end-all! or, best of all, Mentoring younger girls is fun!

I complain not about the lessons, only that they are so unsubtly delivered. Nor do I complain that the men in these features are mostly auxiliary; it’s absolutely refreshing for women’s friendships, autonomy and (dare I say it) solidarity to live at the center of not one but two films gracing the malls across the US right now. Five minutes of the rarified drek of Sin City, in which testosterone overload (and Tarantino and Rodriguez’ self-indulgence) distorts every character, even the females, reminds us how a few too many good intentions aren’t that bad a thing these days. (Why exactly are cats like Tarantino and Rodriguez counted as edgy when they so gleefully reinforce the status quo?)

In sooth, very few movies or TV shows like Beauty Shop exist. As pat as its storyline is, that this film roates around a widowed black mom supporting her family by launching her own business successfully and treating her employees, neighbors, and (most shockingly) her mother-in-law with love and respect is fairly revolutionary. Yes, it’s the black movie equivalent of vanilla — the film’s biggest dramatic conflict comes in the handy package of a beautician shop inspector — but the point driven home over and over is more piquant: that the true gauge of female success is the degree of integrity she preserves daily. Maybe, if we get adjusted to that idea, it will eventually transcend being such a gimmick that it subsitutes for actual plot. (The few other mainstream movies that convey similar messages — Legally Blonde, the Where’s-Waldo lesbian drama Fried Green Tomatoes — smack of the same saccarine.)

But as long as social (and familial) conditioning still dicates that when the going gets tough, the tough collapse into the nearest sperm donator’s arms like a 19th century maiden with the vapors, and so long as the merging of a financial object and a sexual one still masquerades as valid grounds for marriage, such doggedly earnest movies prove useful anyway. No matter how kind and patient your sweetheart is, boy or girl, there’s no beating the strings-free support of your long-time girlfriends, the ones who’ve witnessed you pick yourself up from a fall enough times to be able to remind you that you can do it again — and to dispense that all-elusive uncomplicated hug. Short of that, if all your girls’ time is now claimed by the likes of little people and husband people, apparently right now there are them screens, silver and small alike.

I clamor to them.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy