A group of eager beauty pageant contestants stand on a stage, awaiting judgement from a trio of judges who will change their fate.
Six high-school cheerleaders stand in front of a two-way mirror in a police lineup, waiting for confirmation that their fate as criminals is sealed.
Each of the scenes above see a group of young women engage in behavior “unbecoming” of young women and both come from the same mind: screenwriter Lona Williams. In 1999 and 2001, Williams created a double-feature of good-hearted bad girls with her scripts for Drop Dead Gorgeous and Sugar & Spice. Beset by professional and personal problems, Williams gave up the Hollywood spotlight, forever robbing young women of future films where feminism is explored in a way unseen since. Williams two films are ahead of their time, presenting lessons in how Hollywood seeks to give women more power, but only so far as it’s deemed acceptable.
Williams was raised in the world of beauty pageants, a “a way out” of her small-town of Rosemount, Minnesota. If the first rule of screenwriting 101 is to write what you know, Williams couldn’t have found a better topic for her first film script. Originally entitled Dairy Queens, she was forced to change it to Drop Dead Gorgeous to avoid irritating the ice cream chain. Drop Dead Gorgeous is a mockumentary about a group of high school girls in Mount Rose, Minnesota who enter the the American Teen Princess pageant. The titular protagonist, Kirsten Dunst’s Amber Atkins, sees the pageant as a way to achieve her dream of becoming Diane Sawyer. Unfortunately, competition is fierce, literally, culminating in the mysterious death and hobbling of contestants.
Drop Dead Gorgeous is audacious, hilarious, and bleak as can be. Kirsten Dunst’s scrappy Amber is the heroine the audience wants to see succeed, and in any other movie, her success would be assured. She lives in a trailer with her boozy mother, Annette (Ellen Barkin), works as a makeup artist in a funeral parlor, and always remains upbeat, even when she’s tormented by local rich bitch Becky Leeman (Denise Richards). The audience laughs at how ridiculous and over-the-top the young girls’ accidents are-an exploding thresher and a falling klieg light factor in-but what’s surprising is that these girls are being maimed at all…over a beauty pageant. It’s a satirical world writ large, funny because it’s easy to assume it’s authentic. The actions of the contestants are presented as no crazier than the anorexic former winner, Mary; they’re just more callous about it.
In a 2014 article for Buzzfeed about the film, Williams says Drop Dead Gorgeous isn’t about the simplistic good girl versus the bad girl, but how “success is…mercenary and empty and meaningless.” Amber is a seemingly chaste teen who doesn’t drink or smoke. From a societal standpoint, she’s perfect, a good girl in every sense of the word who should be rewarded, both in life and in cinema. But Williams wants Amber to earn that reward. Amber’s mother’s friend Loretta (Allison Janney) uses the “nice person” rhetoric to keep Amber positive, only to sigh and proclaim “…it’s pure bullshit, sweetie. You’re lucky as hell, so you might as well enjoy it.” In comparison to Becky and her mother Gladys (Kirstie Alley) who ascribe to the belief that “Jesus loves winners” and hence, like a monarchy, their power is preordained, Amber’s is pure chance. It’s luck that the falling klieg light doesn’t hit her but her friend Jenelle, who swapped numbers; it’s luck that the float carrying Becky explodes and sends Amber to state; it’s luck that a bout of food poisoning sees Amber as the sole healthy contestant to head to nationals; and it’s luck that ends up keeping her from winning in Lincoln, Alabama.
The film’s ultimate irony is the women’s, and not just the young girls but their mothers, blind belief that the pageant will act as their ticket out of Mount Rose. This is in spite of numerous pieces of evidence presented to them; a commercial for St. Paul Pork Products sees a former winner as the spokesman who “loves them so much, I work here now!” Mt. Rose librarian Ilona Hildebrandt, in contrast to Amber’s lucky streak, bitterly recounts having to turn in her “tiara for scrap” after the outbreak of WWII. It is Hildebrandt’s character who was meant to shoot up the Chicken Shack at the film’s ending to illustrate that, at the end of the day the Mt. Rose American Teen Princess Pageant is a false front.
To the lilting strains of “Beautiful Dreamer,” Amber steps off the bus in Lincoln, only to discover the sponsor of the pageant, Sarah Rose Cosmetics, has been shut down by the IRS for tax evasion. Is Amber lucky or is she the harbinger of a greater destruction? In the end, it doesn’t matter that she’s a good person who does everything right; sometimes bad things happen to good people. What Williams creates is a world of harsh realities and characters who feel real. For her, the American Dream is only attainable for women if they temper expectations. Amber’s mother and Loretta believe the Leeman’s money will buy happiness, and it does, for a time. Hollywood talks about a mythical world of diversity, where female characters are allowed to be complex, but it only goes so far. The woman can be a bitch, but must be a happy ending or punishment for someone. With Drop Dead Gorgeous, women can be mercenary, driven, ambitious, and retain their goodness. Amber becomes Diane Sawyer without losing her sparkling smile, even if it means picking up the dropped microphone of a shot reporter and continuing on with the news.
Williams’ style could be compared to the work of Sofia Coppola, but it’s unlike anything Coppola would envision. For Williams, her female heroines are beautiful, but face a landscape littered with competition, judgement, and sex. Though the characters may face scorn for their actions, there’s an inner sense of unity—they’re all in this together. To compensate for Amber’s catty relationship with Becky, there’s her friendship with fellow contestant Lisa Swenson (Brittany Murphy). For Lisa, it’s not enough to compete with other women; she’s also competing with her off-screen brother Peter. Lisa’s entire existence is to serve Peter’s interest: “You know they [her parents] only had me because Peter needed that kidney.” Williams’ script is one where it’s not enough to be a woman climbing over her peers; she must be better than the men in her life. This makes Lisa’s decision to give up her pageant spot to loan Amber her costume all the more poignant. Not every woman has a heart of gold in the film, but the ones who do are exceptional. Lisa isn’t rewarded for her actions in the narrative; in fact, she later ends up outing her brother to her parents. But it is the fact that Lisa’s goodness stands out in a sea of envy that makes her a good person in the film and to the audience.
Williams’ follow-up to Drop Dead Gorgeous, 2001’s Sugar & Spice, adheres to several of the philosophies espoused in the previous feature, particularly involving a mercenary quest for happiness; yet Williams goes too far by Hollywood standards, putting female characters in a genre controlled by male narratives. The story starts off with teen taboo #1: pregnancy. High-school cheerleader Diane Weston (Marley Shelton) gets pregnant by her quarterback boyfriend, Jack (James Marsden). The two struggle to make ends meet, only for Diane to realize “money makes your dreams come true.” Along with her cheerleader friends, the group decides to rob a local bank to support Diane’s family. Unlike Drop Dead Gorgeous, Sugar & Spice eschews over-the-top satire for a sobering look at the world of teenage pregnancy. Though Diane isn’t shamed for having sex, her friends are left to ask whether she wants an abortion. In the same scene, Jack’s football buddies high-five him, congratulating him on having sex with Diane. The young couple quickly realizes love “won’t pay the rent, love won’t buy my baby diapers,” and it’s up to Diane—like most women in these situations—to figure out how to make good.
Sugar & Spice faced a backlash Drop Dead Gorgeous never felt, and it’s possible it derailed Williams’ career. The heroines in Sugar & Spice are comfortable doing something commonly seen in male-centric films: committing a bank robbery. “Researching” how to rob banks by watching the likes of Point Break and Heat, it’s implied, though never explicated, that what the characters—and, in turn, the film—are doing is breaking barriers between crime and gender. (Can you name the last film you saw with female bank robbers?) What’s more surprising is the group succeeds with no backlash. Similar to DDG, it is only through banding together with their enemy, the jealous Lisa, that everyone walks away scot-free. For Williams, women are continually placed in situations where success is only achieved by being merciless, but that doesn’t need to make you a villain.
Initially called Sugar & Spice and Semi-automatics, Sugar & Spice saw heavy revisions, with Williams so upset that her name was removed as screenwriter. In an interview discussing the film, Williams brought up the difficulty in telling a story about teens with guns in the wake of Columbine and other school massacres. (It also didn’t help that director Darren Stein created a similar black comedy with bigger studio backing called Jawbreaker.) Was the problem teens with guns? Or was it women with guns? In the wake of overwhelming debate about guns, a film like Sugar & Spice should get more credit. Isn’t the right-wing’s theory that more women should be armed? It goes back to the film being about women committing crimes, and how little you see that in modern-day cinema. It’s rare to see women plan and execute a successful heist, but to also have weaponry on-top of it is nearly unheard of. Sugar & Spice shows women as tough, not dainty, and that’s surprising for a lot of people to see, even today.
Ultimately, Lona Williams was a woman ahead of her time. Hollywood has tried to make the cinematic landscape more palatable for women, but we’ve yet to see anything on par with Williams’ razor-sharp wit and uncompromising yet hilarious depiction of femininity. Both her films have devout cult followings, and much of that stems from the world she’s created that is so unlike our own, yet unforgettably tied to it. Her characters are complex in the truest sense of the word: emotional, funny, and mean, with a code that’s clearly defined. Like the realest humans, Williams’ women aren’t wholly good or bad, but driven to succeed the way they’ve been taught for centuries to, and that often involves stepping on others, yet still having close connections to friends and family. The women of Drop Dead Gorgeous and Sugar & Spice are flawed, imperfect, and not seeking redemption, yet are allowed to live free in spite of it. I miss the Lona Williams who taught me to “cheer loud and look pretty,” in order to kick a little ass.