by Michelle Dean
Everywhere I went last week, women were talking about Bridesmaids. When they would see it, how many and varied were the ways in which they adored Maya Rudolph, how Kristen Wiig really was amazing in those two minutes of Knocked Up she appeared in, etc. Perhaps that only says something about the circles I travel in, although now we know that people spent about $25 million this weekend to see it. But much as talk of weddings, and all the things one Must Do and Must Have at one, often makes me feel as thought I was born in a pod sent here from the planet I Don’t Know How To Be A Lady, so too did all the hoopla about this movie. I know there’s a burgeoning cultural sub-discussion about the place of women in comedy and in Hollywood — I’ve run up against it before. But it was unclear to me how, exactly, we all had such faith in a movie whose poster contained the words “Produced by Judd Apatow” (shudder) and which used the phrase “Chick Flicks Don’t Have to Suck” as a cornerstone of its marketing.
I hoped, of course, that this was only me being my usual contrarian self, and that my feelings of alienation from the sisterhood would disappear upon seeing the film itself. But they didn’t.
Bridesmaids is, as undoubtedly many of you know for yourselves by now, not the worst way you could have spent two hours of your weekend. It’s quite funny, in fact, and not always in the manner the trailer might have led you to expect. Specifically, for all those who feared it would be full of jokes of the “food-poisoning-induced diarrhea” variety, that’s not the case. There’s plenty of Wiigian deadpan on offer, with that uniquely skittish flatness she delivers so beautifully. Her impersonation of a penis in search of fellatio is amazing, and I particularly enjoyed some drunken escapades on a plane that, despite being cast at a fairly broad level of comedy, Wiig manages to make subtle with her habit of underplaying the joke. Almost in a Peter Sarsgaard-esque way, if I may be granted a potentially bizarre analogy. Maya Rudolph, as the bride Lillian, looks fantastic basically the entire movie, even if she hasn’t much to do. There’s a bonus Jon Hamm appearance during which he questionably tries to channel his charming surfer-dude personal demeanor through the Draperian asshole type. But who cares about the success of that, Jon Hamm is hot.
But that’s about all the good things I can say about it. And as I checked over my notes afterwards, I noticed that none of the things I enjoyed about the movie were really related to the movie’s appeals to “women.” Which is funny, of course, because in the last week there was a lot of meta-critical chatter that posited this movie as a kind of referendum on the modern Chick Flick Condition. I first became suspicious when men’s reviews of this film were filled with nice guy-isms that smacked of the modern fear, particular though not exclusive to male liberal arts graduates, of being seen as sexist. Roger Ebert: “It definitively proves that women are the equal of men in vulgarity, sexual frankness, lust, vulnerability, overdrinking and insecurity.” (Well, I guess we don’t need the ERA anymore!) From no less a women’s magazine wannabe than the Wall Street Journal: “If this is only a chick flick, then call me a chick.” (We’re always looking for fresh blood!)
It wasn’t only men who praised the movie to the heavens. At Salon, Rebecca Traister went so far as to term attendance a “social responsibility,” while Mary Elizabeth Williams called the film “your first black president of female driven comedies.” (Eek.) In other words, the sisterhood is calling, and your solidarity is required by way of your wallet. Imagine my surprise when I arrived on these hyperbolic recommendations — from writers I respect! — to discover a movie whose “female”-ness is derived almost exclusively from the sheer number of speaking roles assigned to women. Who talk almost exclusively to each other, bless them.
That said, even when applying the new gold standard of the Lady Film, the Bechdel test — it’s now been endorsed by the New Yorker, after all — the results are mixed. I’m not sure if we can really count conversations about weddings in this movie as not being “about men” — although it’s true that the province of the wedding is presented to us as women’s territory. But movies like Bridesmaids presume that much of the angst that women who are not the bride feel on these occasions has to do with not being married (or at least in a stable relationship) themselves. In the logic of this kind of film, no one has any problem with the idea that an expensive dress, lasers and Wilson Phillips, are the appropriate accessories to a celebration of the person with whom one plans to spend a life. Instead, the fear and anxiety in Bridesmaids springs almost solely from losing a member of your personal sisterhood to the land of men. I don’t mean to suggest that that isn’t a real fear, sometimes, nor even that it shouldn’t play a role in movies like this. It’s that you miss things, crucial things — funny things! — when you make it your exclusive lens.
Take, for example, the whole matter of dresses — bride’s and bridesmaids’ — a topic much debated and joked about among women of this film’s ostensible target demographic. These dresses are frequently ugly; they are expensive; and boy, would most women I know like to crucify the person who came up with the idea that the only way to look good in wedding pictures is for the bridesmaids’ dresses to match. Placed in that context, the scene in which the dresses are being chosen is an egregious missed opportunity. The movie doesn’t even go for the weakest of jabs at that whole ridiculous tradition. We’re expected to laugh instead at the spectacle of Maya Rudolph shitting in the street, a scene that was apparently the brainchild of Apatow himself.
The problem with that intervention isn’t just that it was made by a guy who, prior to this film, seemed afraid to admit that women might shit at all. (Such are the scraps you learn to accept from the big boys’ table, I suppose.) It’s that it also keeps the central relationship, and the tension the story seeks to introduce into it, from making much sense. After the plane escapade, when Wiig’s Annie gets the group grounded on their way to Vegas for a bachelorette weekend, Lillian tells her that she’s relieving her of wedding duties because it’s not her thing. In context this makes no sense. Annie has only, in terms of errors, picked a bad restaurant and accepted two alleged anxiety-reducing pills from Rose, her rival. I can see where the writing might have gone with this — it’s true, for example, that if someone asked me to be her Maid of Honor there would be moments when I would fear that my eyes would never quit rolling. I might balk at the idea of having to plan both a shower and a bachelorette party, for example. But Annie is never presented to us as That Sort of Girl. She has no objection to the proceedings that could be even vaguely categorized as feminist. Instead, hazily, it’s suggested that her problem with Lillian’s wedding is simply that everyone else’s life seems to be moving forward just as hers descends into disaster: she has no job and has had to move back in with her mother. And, mainly, she has no man. Jon Hamm is commitment phobic and bad in bed to boot, and Annie herself can’t commit to the cute (if bland) police officer she charms out of giving her a ticket. And so we’re back to the same old thing: any ambivalence Annie feels towards the wedding is just a cipher for her fear that she will never, herself, have a guy to call her own. (It’s worth noting that this romance is the only thread of Annie’s disheveled life that the film resolves.)
Do I blame Wiig, and her co-writer Annie Mumolo, for all of this? Not precisely. They were making a Hollywood comedy, they were doing so at the behest of, and supervised by, Judd Apatow, and expecting “subtlety” and “depth” to emerge from such a process might be too much to ask for. It’s telling, after all, that women’s “votes” for this film were characterized as dollars, which in this bafflingly Gilded Age of the market economy apparently is the new measure of quality. Of course, I do understand that films need to make money, and I also understand that there are agreed-upon (if arbitrary) methods for doing so that are largely beyond creative control. I further understand that this is a team effort, and that the team undoubtedly includes studio suits who, in Tina Fey’s soon-to-be immortal formulation, believe that “the definition of ‘crazy’ in show business is a woman who keeps talking even after no one wants to fuck her anymore.” I blame the frame more than I blame any of the individual people holding it up. But then if the problem is really the Apatowian-industrial-complex, and its control over architecture of this whole film, well: maybe it’s time to come to terms with the fact that this kind of movie can’t be quasi-feminist, or perhaps more aptly, even a victory for women qua “women.”
And it’s not just a matter of the film making it All About the Men. Take the strange case of Melissa McCarthy’s character, Megan. Chatter on my various social media feeds suggests that in some people’s view she stole the movie. Manohla Dargis bizarrely called her character almost “radical.” But I was mostly appalled by how she’d been written, myself. Almost every joke was designed to rest on her presumed hideousness, and her ribald but unmistakably “butch” sexuality was grounded primarily in her body type and an aversion to makeup. (“I never bloat,” she says at a bridesmaids’ lunch, which is funny because she is big, Y/Y?) But if her failure to apologize for her size seems momentarily refreshing, one’s satisfaction is instantly deflated by the fact that all the other characters in the movie find her so distasteful. The dominant feeling she seems to elicit from her fellow bridesmaids is one of horror. Even when Megan has a heartfelt talk with Annie towards the end of the film, Wiig seemed to struggle to shed a nose wrinkle.
It’s not so much that the character was unrecognizable — I’ve known women like Megan. It’s that none of the humanity we see in her came from the script — it was all in McCarthy’s performance. Which is lovely as it provides a good showcase for McCarthy’s talent, but I wonder what she, in her heart of hearts, feels about being consigned to roles like this because of her body type. Sure, comedies often feature a buffoon character along these lines. In some sense she was playing the Jonah Hill/Zach Galifianakis role. What I object to is less that these roles exist than that they are assigned from the get-go to the kinds of women (fat, butch, maybe African-American if “sass” is required) that society feels extremely comfortable laughing at. Which is to say: why can’t the buffoon be skinny? Even pretty in a conventional way? Even more to the point, why must her looks be made the essence of her buffoonery?
The answer might have to do with studio/Apatowian tweaking, with their article of faith being that fat women are unattractive and unattractive women will not put butts in seats unless they are ridiculed. But running along here is a sort of ickier undercurrent of the whole concept of “sisterhood” — namely that it’s so often built on the backs of women of the “wrong sort” — in this case “too fat/unattractive.” The content of that wrongness varies from context to context, of course. But the “rising tide” theory of social advancement is only great until you’re the one being used as a stepping stone. And I’m not going to get into all the pages and pages of theory that feminist writers have wasted on this because no one cares, certainly not readers of some movie review, in any case. Nevertheless, here’s my qualm: I’m never going to feel comfortable with the term “feminist” or frankly even “female-driven” being applied to a comedy, albeit written by women, albeit starring excellent, funny women performers, albeit designed to appeal to the gross-out comedy crowd, that makes fun of fat women for being so plainly gross and disgusting.
Yes yes yes, I heard you, Judd Apatow, Paul Feig, every dissenting male commenter on an article about women and comedy, ever: nothing should be sacred in comedy. The problem is exactly that, though. Your view of what is and isn’t sacred is remarkably rigid. (Also, boring.) Pretty, thin ladies being amazing? Sacred. Fat women being ugly? Sacred. Women who you don’t want to sleep with being anything other than objects of ridicule? Well, that’s going too far! You are all, the lot of you, positively catholic about such things. I’m sure you believe yourselves to be nice guys, “letting” the women have a movie like this one — but I, for one, don’t thank you for it.
Michelle Dean’s writing has appeared, among other places, at Bitch, The American Prospect and The Rumpus. She sometimes blogs here.
Credit all photos: Suzanne Hanover/Universal Studios.