ACIDEMIC Journal of Film and Media

Mandy Moore
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by Rebecca Onion

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In a pivotal and typically flatly lit scene from A Walk to Remember (2002)--Mandy Moore's breakthrough as an actress--she faces Shane West, the ruggedly jawed bad-boy who has fallen for her goody-goody Christian character. The two are in a flowery backyard garden or at the end of a pier or on a front porch with a white swing - I can’t remember which. Shane, who has been saddled with the character name Landon Carter (is that more or less ridiculous than "Shane West"? You decide.) asks her if he can kiss her. She makes a cute little crestfallen face, and says with genuine worry, "I might be bad at it."

 In this one moment of heartfelt authenticity, the campaign to anoint Mandy Moore as the new feminist girl-power totem is summarized. Mandy is the ultimateteenage protagonist, always occupying the sympathetic place in the narrative. She is a true friend: How to Deal (2003) finds her in the back of a car helping her best friend through labor pains-- with her dead teenage boyfriend's baby no less. She is a person with strong convictions: In A Walk to Remember she has a balanced and admirable religious fervor, full of the graceful faith that lights up the eyes. Above all, she is a really cute girl who boys fall in love with--every Moore movie ends with one professing his undying devotion to her. That magic moment in the garden or on the pier or porch works because Mandy gets to be totally honest with the cute boy and still kiss him -staying true to her individuality in a moment where most of us just melt clean way.
 
Consider, for a moment, the face and limbs of Mandy Moore. She has the flatly cute mien of a cheerleader, with that expanse of perfect skin and cheeks sporting just a few freckles of the cinnamony type that teen  magazine editors love to cite when enjoining other teenage girls to embrace their own little "beauty  marks." Moore herself cut all   her blonde hair off in order to make the symbolic transition from pop tart (she had some unbelievably bad songs, including "I Wanna Be With You" and "Candy") to actress - her short
and spikey brunette do was a great career move, as it got people talking about her Hepburn-ish qualities and caused ym magazine to name her one of the coolest girls in America. (Full disclosure: I was one of the editors who was responsible for this award.)
 
Other things signpost Mandy as the next supposedly "real" teen actress. Her body type, for example. Mandy is tall - 5'10" - which leaves her head and gawky shoulders above teensy teen stars like Mary-Kate & Ashley Olsen. And what about her clothing? She is not overly sexualized - she's known as the more squeaky-clean of the pop stars, and in A Walk to Remember, her character, Jaime Sullivan, is an unbelievable frump, wearing garments that no other teen actress would be caught dead in, including calico skirts made out of approximately fifteen yards of fabric and shapeless cordoroy jumpers. Costume designers for her other two movies, How to Deal and
Chasing Liberty (2004, relish her skinny comeliness and suit her up in hip-yet-classy duds - a knee-length skirt with socks and Chucks, Juicy-type sweats. But she's never seen in a belly shirt or, for example, high-heeled boots, a bustiere and leather chaps with a hole in the butt area (if you've never seen the Christina Aguilera "Drrrty" video, you wouldn't understand).
 
 Her very appealing nature is part of the reason why her movies, with their sugary-sweet world views and virtuous heroines, are so dangerous. These films, while purporting to be empowering and heartwarming, are perfectly calibrated to appeal to the teenage taste for sentimentalism and melodrama, with a healthy dose of fantasy fulfillment and safe, non-threatening sexual titillation thrown in, to boot.
 
A Walk to Remember is the main offender on the sentimentalism front, with its religious message and morbid plot echoing directly the kinds of sappy, death-obsessed Victorian women's entertainment that Twain mocks in his Huckleberry Finn. We have Jamie, the aforementioned virtuous Christian virgin and gamine spirit of honesty, who seduces Shane West's Landon through sheer force of her personality, faith, and individualism. He loves her because she doesn't give a crap what people at school think; because she says innocent and faithful things like "I know there's a God in the same way that I can feel the wind - I can't see it but I know it's all around me"; because she is whip-smart and built herself a telescope and knows everything about astronomy and science.
 
 Just when Shane is really starting to fall for her, she reveals to him a Terrible Secret: she has leukemia, and it's no longer responding to treatment, and she is going to die. When he demands, on another flatly lit stage set, to know why she didn't tell him, she cries "I was kind of okay with it until you came along! I didn't want a reason to hate God!" Of course, Landon doesn't go away - he stays by her side and her hospital bed and falls apart quite satisfactorily when she gets sick. He even gets married to her in the church where her mother was married - a wedding, incidentally, which she had earlier cited as her number one ambition in life.
 
 
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How to Deal, in which Hallie Martin's best friend Scarlett has the baby, is another example of this element of schlocky maudlinism that is rife in Moore's movies. Scarlett's boyfriend Michael, with whom she's very much in love, up and dies on her while playing in a soccer match (he has a heart defect), and Scarlett subsequently finds that she is pregnant. Against her mother's wishes, she decides to keep the baby, and Hallie becomes her main ally throughout the pregnancy. This kind of baroque conception really appeals to girls who have a typical teenage obsession with mortality. What could be more tragically romantic than carrying some dead boyfriend's child and giving him new life in the world?
 
Another way in which the Moore canon shamelessly uses Moore's charm to exploit the insecurities of tons of girls is to use Moore as a paragon of virtue, the kind of girl who never betrays her own personality in orderto get popular. This is perhaps the ultimate teen girl fantasy - to be accepted for exactly who you are, not for some pumped-up personality that you have created for the eyes of the world.
 
 Of course, in Moore's movies, acceptance by the world is signified by acceptance by the aforementioned very cute boy. In How to Deal, Macon Forrester (really!), played by sometime Abercrombie & Fitch model Trent Ford, isn't put off by Hallie's involvement with Scarlett, who has become something of a pariah after deciding to keep her baby, and by her lack of any other discernable social life  beyond that friendship. In a weak moment, while she is drunk and heading home from a New Years' Eve party with Macon, Hallie lets slip that she would rather have more from Macon than
just the occasional friends-with-benefits hookup. Macon coldly says "You shouldn't make things so complicated," drives the two of them into a tree, and dumps Hallie at the hospital, in a cruel reversal of the scene in A Walk to Remember when Landon Carter sleeps in a chair by Jamie's side. Even though Macon apologizes and flashes his crooked smile and pointy
eyebrows, Hallie still refuses to give up and get back together with him. Only after he (improbably) goes on her dad's radio show to win her heart back does she decide to give him a chance, open up her heart, etc. The key point is that she has control over the relationship, and she enters it on her own terms.
 
Anna Foster, Moore's First Daughter in Chasing Liberty, charms Ben Calder (Matthew Goode) in the same patented quirky and free-spirited way, doing wacky things like almost falling off of roofs and swimming in the Danube with no clothes on. Her powers of personality are such that she can force Ben to forgo his duty as a secret service officer who is supposed to be surreptitiously keeping her safe. He literally throws his cell phone, on the other end of which is the resident of the United States, into a still-smoking campfire, choosing instead to return to a sleepy Anna rolled up in a blanket with hay sticking out of her hair. The joke of the movie is that she doesn't know that he's a secret service agent, and so is continually coming onto him and getting frustrated when he won't respond. She is so charmingly unaware of her own power that she keeps complaining to him about how much of a loser she feels like on the love arena, which causes him to find her even more innocent, honest and endearing.
 
This innocent sexuality is also a regressive element. In a nation full of kids who are getting all of their sex ed from abstinence-only dictators, and who are also having sex with each other earlier than ever, Mandy's ability to snag a cool guy while still refusing to bend completely to his sexual wishes is appealing.  It's not fair to accuse How to Deal and Chasing Liberty of this advanced form of puritanism - these two actually show Mandy and her male lead in intimate contact, or infer that they have had contact. It's A Walk to Remember that very much errs on the side of suggesting that a chaste teenage romance is possible and indeed would be more divine than one featuring the kinds of things real kids are actually doing. Landon and Jamie kiss, and clutch each other close, but when they spend the night together in the cemetery looking at the stars, he pulls out a blanket. When she says "Are you trying to seduce me?" and he retorts "Why, are you seducible?", it's understood between them that the sex thing is not going to happen. He sighs and says "Well, I thought not, so I brought anotherblanket as well." She has a childlike happiness about
her when he says this. Although it's completely incomprehensible that the two of them would have slept out all night in two separate bedrolls, snug as bugs in rugs, it's just an example of the alternate universe that the movie operates in. It's the world of Girls' Hopes, in which they all can find a boy like Landon who will love them no matter what.
 
Mandy Moore's supposed breath of fresh air into the stale world of teen movies is not a feminist act. Her characters are throwbacks, and the power that she has depends in large part on her sexual attractiveness. This wouldn't matter so much if she weren't being touted as the number one different, quirky, feminist actress of the day. If you keep feeding young girls the romantic lies that her movies put forth, it is inevitable that they are going to get hurt. 
 
--Summer, 2004
 
***Mandy's latest movie, Saved!, is supposed to be a little bit more biting and ironic than these first three. I haven't had a chance to see it yet. Can even the most devoted queen of saccharine turn over a new leaf? With her hair cut short and dyed black, and her maturing into an impossibly thin hottie, then who knows? Perhaps in losing her virginity she will gain her soul after all.  ++
   

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