While far from perfect, this bawdy comedy with a heart proved that upending Hollywood cliches actually makes for a better movie.
Written by Sarah Seltzer for RHRealityCheck.org - News, commentary and community for reproductive health and justice. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.
Bridesmaids shouldn’t have had to inspire a feminist e-mail campaign. It shouldn’t have been an activist choice to go see a silly movie featuring an over-exposed SNL comedian. And it shouldn’t have mattered so much that the movie performed well at the box office. But because Hollywood remains deeply sexist in myriad ways (see this piece from Roseanne Barr for confirmation), all those things were true.
And Bridesmaids itself, a work of film whose centerpiece comedic moment, suggested by Hollywood bromance king Judd Apatow, is an infamous scene involving graphic food poisoning at a bridal salon--shouldn’t have been a revelation. It shouldn’t have made me, and many of the women I’ve spoken with, feel such a strange sensation as we watched, such an intense feeling of gratitude for the writers and director.
But all these things were true, too. For the first time since I watched Juno (and that movie’s problematic treatment of abortion ruined the experience in some ways for me) I had the feeling that the screenwriters of a mainstream comedy were talking to me, “woman to woman.” And I detest Judd Apatow's films and often find Kristen Wiig's SNL acting irritating. This movie was not, as advertised, “The Hangover” with boobs. It was instead a laugh-fest with a heart, and even as it exaggerated everything for comic effect, its characters were believable.
I certainly do not believe that men and women are intrinsically different, nor do I think that there exists some sort of a universal experience of womanhood that we can all relate to at the snap of our fingers.
No, rather I think that women, as they’re projected onscreen by a sexist industry, are not usualy real people. So when they do seem real, many of us will see ourselves in them (newsflash: this is the experience that white men have when they watch most movies). We’re so used to watching seductresses or shrews, adorable heroines who are “met-cute” by the right guy at the wrong time, sassy best friends or any of a host of stereotypes that we’re bowled over by a central female character who has an arc, and who has baggage, and who has an off-color sense of humor. This, in part, explains the wildly positive reaction to Bridesmaids.
And surprise! By ignoring cliches, the movie actually works better--you don’t have to be well-versed in feminist theory to be dying for more than the same-old from Hollywood.
“Chick-flicks” or “rom-coms,” are usually overpopulated by women who move about in airy houses or apartments with floor-to-ceiling windows, impeccably dressed with smooth faces, save dimples, and whose “humanizing trait” is almost always frenetic perfectionism with a dash of clumsiness thrown in for good measure. As Tad Friend’s widely-circulated piece in the New Yorker on women in comedy notes (and a video from Nerve.com documents), this clumsiness is actually a “rule:”
"'To make a woman adorable,' one female successful screenwriter says, 'you have to defeat her at the beginning... It's as simple as making the girl cry, fifteen minutes into the movie.' Relatability is based on vulnerability, which creates likeability. With male characters, smoking pot, getting drunk, and lying around watching porn is likeable; with females, the same conduct is hateful. So funny women must not only be gorgeous; they must fall down and then sob, knowing it's all their fault."
And by gesturing at relatability with the shortcut of clumsiness, producers fail to create characters who resemble us at all. Thus, your typical heroines do not possess flaws like deep-seated insecurity, big mouths, aggression of the passive or plain variety, laziness, or a regular employment of substance abuse beyond a cocktail or two.
Enter Annie, Bridesmaids’ protagonist who possesses every single one of these failings. She’s got a propensity for putting her foot in her mouth, she spends too much time feeling sorry for herself and moping, she can be both outright nasty and more subtly cutting, and yet she’s quite human. She’s had a spate of bad luck, which explains her bad behavior. She’s outrageously funny, which helps us forgive that bad behavior. And her tendency towards self-destruction is channelled in ways that women and men of all stripes can relate to. She acts out by getting in trouble in public, but also by ignoring good things that come her way, by taking her own creation, a gloriously over-the-top cupcake that’s a symbol of her love and talent, and diffidently shoving it down her throat.
As played by a surprisingly toned down and believable Kristen Wiig, Annie experiences a long and hilarious meltdown with an understandable cause--it’s triggered when her best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph), at the onset of her wedding planning season introduces the miserable Annie to a new friend, a ridiculously wealthy, impeccably gorgeous, and “take-charge” type who seems programmed to make Annie feel wretched and inadequate in every way. This intruder threatens to further sever Annie from her friend and lifeline, Lillian, embarking on a new phase of life.
Annie’s friendship with Lillian has already been heralded across the internet as a victory, encapsulated in a small moment at the movie’s outset in which the two women talk sex in specific details, and smear food on their teeth over breakfast at a diner--like a scene from Sex in the City with less one-liners and more gentle joking. It’s endearingly intimate, as is their eventual reconciliation at the film's end after a series of increasingly insane pratfalls, including the gross-out scene mentioned above (which I closed my eyes for part of, but a friend said she felt like was a celebration of the normalcy of the female body), another in which the two dueling friends of Lillian try to top each other with endless, deeply meaningful toasts, and a set-piece featuring a scared-of-flying Annie maxed out on tranquilizers and booze paying paranoid, intoxicated homage to a famous Twilight Zone episode, mid-flight to Vegas.
The film hits its audience's funny-bones in every way possible: with slapstick, with ribald humor, with situational awkwardness, with clever repartee, and with a down-to-earth supporting cast, including Melissa McCarthy, already heralded as a scene-stealer. Bridesmaids’ plot avoids being unnecessarily cruel to Annie, even as it humiliates her. And the writers manage to capture the sweet intentions behind some wedding traditions while sending up, with a real wallop, the absurd excesses of the wedding-industrial complex, French designers, ruffles, champagne fountains and all.
Annie reminds me a little bit of that other foul-mouthed, self-destructive icon of modern womanhood, Bridget Jones, but with a trajectory that focuses more on her repairing her friendship and overcoming her slump then on her love life (one should note, however that my male and female viewing companions were pleased with the male love interests, both the cad and the “good guy)”.
Let's be clear. This mainstream, commercial film is far from perfect: the bridal party was way too white and unnecessarily hetero-normative. Still it’s about time that someone in Hollywood took on the joys and pitfalls of close female friendship in a broadly accessible way--it shouldn’t have felt so unprecedented, but it did.