The new Shania Twain biopic, “Not Just a Girl,” leaves a lot to be desired as a documentary about a remarkable person. But as a reminder of what it means to be a feminist in the traditional sense, it hits the nail on the head.
Twain’s take on “feminism” — she never identifies herself as a “feminist” that I remember — isn’t the aggressive, man-hating, rage-filled “gender identity” ideology of today. Her music and attitude are not about rejecting men, running them down, or trying to be a man herself, but proclaiming self-reliance with or without a man and celebrating characteristics that are distinctively feminine, even if, amusingly, they aren’t always particularly flattering.
The new Netflix production opens with Twain — from behind, a Sarah Palin lookalike — manhandling the gears of her standard transmission convertible sportscar up a majestic mountainscape while musing on what it means to be independent. She says there is no other way to be except “aware, but fearless.” She is determined to make her own decisions in life, she says, to make her own money, buy her own car, and make her own way.
“The minute you depend on somebody else, you lose something,” the singer says. “You lose the right to decide for yourself. You’ve just got to go for it. Taking the risks to do things your way is scary. So you’ve got to be brave.”
The camera fades from a bucolic paradise to the near-opposite: a sea of screaming fans packed into a huge arena. A present-day Twain emerges from her dressing room and hurries to the stage, glittering from cowboy hat to toe in sequins. Similar scenes from stadium concerts and awards ceremonies throughout the last several decades flash across the screen, implying that the superstar’s credo about being brave and independent has paid off, at least as far as commercial success is concerned.
Fellow music stars Lionel Richie, Kelsea Ballerini, Diplo, and Avril Lavigne gush over Twain’s trailblazing legacy, noting how she broke barriers by bridging musical genres (she basically invented “pop country”) and rewrote the “rules” for female musicians. Twain “does it all,” says Lavigne: She plays guitar, writes her own songs, and puts on “insane live shows.” In terms of record sales, Twain has sold a staggering 100 million albums worldwide — record sales, Richie points out, “not streaming” — and put out three diamond albums consecutively, a feat that few artists are able to achieve in a lifetime, let alone back-to-back over a handful of years.
Then Bo Derek says something that sets the tone for the film: “[Shania Twain] may not wear a banner on her hat that says ‘I’m a feminist’ — she just did it.”
The documentary depicts the life of a woman who has maintained strength, confidence, and an unwavering sense of self in the face of an unconventional upbringing (her mother forced her to sing in seedy bars as a kid), tragedy (her parents were killed in a car accident, and Twain became a mother figure and provider to her brothers when she was just 22), love won and lost (her husband left her for her best friend), and monumental achievement.
Twain soared to stardom with high-energy performances and outlandish get-ups that are a far cry from the composed, low-key, present-day singer who sits in the film cross-legged, always cross-legged, like a zen yogi, reflecting on her sensational career. Yet what a 20-something Twain, ambitious and resolved to do what it takes to “make it” in the early ’90s, and 56-year-old Twain, relaxing at one of her many grand estates share is an unapologetic delight in being the symbol of a feminine woman.
The mainstay of Twain’s success was girl power ballads: “Any Man of Mine” (1995) was the original dating profile, laying out specific standards Twain upheld for a would-be suitor. Best lines: “Any man of mine’ll say it fits just right / When last year’s dress is just a little too tight” and “Even when I’m ugly, he still better love me.”
Twain continued her empowering female anthems to record-setting fanfare album after album. “Don’t Be Stupid (You Know I Love You)” (1997) turned the tables on the opposite sex by applying the mistrusting antics often applied to “crazy women” to a man, and “Honey I’m Home” (1997) cheekily toyed with housewife stereotypes.
“If You’re Not in It for Love (I’m Outta Here!)” (1995) and “That Don’t Impress Me Much” (1997) also both put the woman in the driver’s seat, raising the relationship bar by letting men know what women want, i.e., more than good looks and material possessions. And then, the marquee pro-woman hit: “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” the music video for which features a glamorous Twain dancing in sexy men’s wear-inspired attire, showing the world how much fun it is to be decidedly female.
Twain loved wearing “girly” costumes, makeup, and high heels and flaunting her feminine figure and mystique. She owned it, stood up for herself when she needed to, and by all accounts, retained a vulnerable, sincere, “sweetheart” persona that garnered her so many loyal fans. Twain didn’t struggle with drugs or alcohol (that the documentary shows, anyway), but many times had to buckle down and “dig myself out of a hole,” as she put it.
I was left a little unsatisfied with this film, wondering how and why Twain ended up living in Switzerland, where her stage name came from, what became of her son Eja, how she learned to sing again after Lyme disease damaged her voice, what the giant diamond rock on her wedding finger signifies (apparently she married her ex-best friend’s ex-husband but it’s not mentioned).
Despite these lingering questions, it’s fun to be reminded of how catchy music used to be and how not just acknowledging but reveling in the complimentary differences in the sexes was a normal, healthy, enjoyable part of culture.
This film also inspires viewers to consider feminism in the way it was intended to be embraced and practiced: to be a true feminist means taking responsibility for oneself, standing firm in one’s convictions, and just “doing it” — in stilettos and rhinestones, if need be — making up your own mind, having high standards, and being brave. Bad-mouthing men, burning bras, and growing long armpit hair are not required.