• Denise Richards in 'Drop Dead Gorgeous' (SBS Movies)Source: SBS Movies
On what the cult 1999 mockumentary - a box office flop upon its release twenty years ago - meant to a generation of young women.
Chloe Sargeant

23 Jul 2019 - 4:33 PM  UPDATED 23 Jul 2019 - 4:38 PM

A question I love to ask women is this: what movie have you seen an uncountable amount of times, but will always watch again without hesitation? Obviously, the answers wildly vary, but I started to notice a pattern when I repeatedly posed this question to women of a similar age to myself.

The obvious choices came up constantly — Mean Girls, Legally Blonde, Charlie's Angels — along with a lesser-seen one, whose title was regularly met with approving squeals from the other women in these conversations; a 1999 comedy that is damn near impossible to watch online today. It bombed at the box office when it came out, only becoming a cult phenomenon years later. That movie is Drop Dead Gorgeous.

A darkly funny mockumentary, Drop Dead Gorgeous details a mishap-laden small town beauty pageant. Its young cast is a veritable who's-who of now beloved and award-winning actors, including Kirsten Dunst, Amy Adams (making her screen debut), Denise Richards, Brittany Murphy, Kirstie Alley and Allison Janney. It follows Mount Rose American Teen Princess hopeful Amber Atkins (Dunst), a kind and beautiful teen girl who loves tap dancing and dreams of becoming a journalist like Diane Sawyer. However, tragedies keep happening around Amber: her high school crush dies in a freak hunting accident, a fellow contestant is blown up by a faulty tractor, and the trailer she lives in with her mum mysteriously explodes. These ‘accidents’ are, of course, tied to the film's darkly comedic take on the grim underbelly of small town pageants.

It's not exactly relatable content for a bunch of teenage Australian girls, but for some reason, this movie has stuck with us all.

I remember begging my mum to rent it from Blockbuster over and over again – and funnily enough, almost every woman in their mid-20s to mid-30s has very similar memories. "It was a regular Friday night movie on free-to-air, and I was obsessed with it," said one woman, age 26. "My mum and dad said we could have one weekly rental from the video store on the weekend, and I used it to rent Drop Dead Gorgeous so much I swear I could've worn out the VHS," said another, age 31.

So why did this hyper-American mockumentary about a small town pageant resonate so wildly with teen girls in Australia?

Well, the fictional town of Mount Rose was definitely relatable for any teenage girl who didn't fit in where they grew up and wanted to get out. In the film, Dunst says that boys are able to leave easily (through "hockey scholarships… or prison"), but girls aren't afforded that same luxury, and had to fight tooth and nail in order to leave the town to achieve their goals.

But mainly, it was one of the first films I remember watching in which teenage girls — their bodies, sexuality, hopes, dreams, strengths and weaknesses — were front and center. Things like teen pregnancy, sex, periods, homosexuality, eating disorders, and obsession with beauty were all openly discussed without the sense of taboo that was so often felt in real life. These girls weren't side characters or one-dimensional love interests; their feelings and fears and passions were real, and not played solely for laughs.

The film also showed women, both teenage and adult, as fully formed human beings with faults and flaws. It showed to a huge amount of women other women being awful, desperate, vindictive, rude and discriminatory. It showcased the hormone-driven temporary insanity, and the terrible decisions that come with it, that are part and parcel of being a teenage girl. It told the cautionary tale that people who are beautiful on the outside can be absolutely rotten on the inside, and vice versa.

Finally, this film gave idealistic young women a reality check that no one else really ever does. Parents often tell their kids that if they're a good person, then good things will happen - but that's a lie, and the movie taught that without any semblance of doubt. Sometimes awful things happen to good people. Sometimes good things happen to bad people. Awful people often win, and good people often don't. Loretta (Janney) says it best, in a scene where Amber is upset because she didn't want to win the pageant because of Becky's (Richards) untimely death:

Loretta: You stop right there. You are a good person. Good things happen to good people.
Amber: Really?
Loretta: No, it's pure bullshit, sweetie. You're lucky as hell, so you might as well enjoy it.

These moments, as simple (and grim) as they may sound, were revelatory and formative for myself and many others as teens. Still to this day, seeing teen girls and women, their concerns, and their flaws, at the forefront of a beloved movie is not particularly common.

I write now about this incomparable film because today, July 23rd, Drop Dead Gorgeous celebrates its 20th birthday. Those young girls who added a Drop Dead Gorgeous VHS to their pile of weeklies at Blockbuster are adults now, some of us with our own children, and many of us credit that movie for showing us ourselves on screen, with all of our faults and fears and dreams and passions.

So, please consider this a love letter to Drop Dead Gorgeous, for assisting to form a generation of women. For helping us answer questions about our bodies and our sexuality, for reinforcing the idea that external beauty doesn't mean being a good person, for presenting to us teenage girls and women who have dreams and goals and flaws and the capacity to make mistakes — and they can do all these things as lead characters in a movie. Teenage girls are awesome and terrifying, powerful and autonomous, and Drop Dead Gorgeous helped me acknowledge that.