By now I hope we can all agree that just because a film features female characters who speak with one another about anything other than a man, it does not automatically qualify as feminist-friendly. What we really need to consider is context. So, let’s do just that. And let’s do it with BRIDESMAIDS.
BRIDESMAIDS is a 2+ hour movie written by women and starring a female ensemble cast that’s made more than one feminist shudder.
BRIDESMAIDS is a 2+ hour movie written by women and starring a female ensemble cast that’s made more than one feminist shudder. If you’re confused as to why (and even if you’re not), I recommend reading Michelle Dean’s poignant review “Bridesmaids: Am I Doing Being a Woman Wrong?” over at theawl.com
Nevertheless, there are other feminists who purport that, despite the fact that Bridesmaids is another female-targeted film about women desperate to get married, it’s a rare entry in contemporary mainstream cinema in which females are the perpetrators of comedy, and for that reason alone, Marybeth Williams at salon.com calls it our “first black president of female-driven comedies.” Zoe Williams at The Guardian goes so far as to say, “They (meaning the Apatow-headed ensemble) could make a film which came down broadly in favour of female genital mutilation and it would still, if the women had lines like [Bridesmaids], be more feminist than Thelma and Louise.”
I sincerely hope Apatow does not produce a broad comedy about female genital mutilation
For the record, I sincerely hope Apatow does not produce a broad comedy about female genital mutilation, but perhaps more chilling is the fact that self-proclaimed feminists so willingly compromise fundamental principles in exchange for the opportunity to elicit a few laughs. And for that matter, not all of us see the so-called humor. An example of one such instance can be found in BRIDESMAIDS’ opening sequence:
In it, the protagonist, Annie (played by co-writer Kristin Wiig) is having sex with an absurdly selfish lover. He shouts demands like “cup my balls” yet repeatedly denies Annie’s simplest requests, often pleasuring himself at her expense. The sex is not only not enjoyable for her, judging from her expression and awkwardly flailing limbs, it looks downright painful.
Nevertheless, she spends the night in his bed, and despite his utter disregard to please her, makes a point to wake up before him in order to reapply her makeup.
Nevertheless, she spends the night in his bed, and despite his utter disregard to please her, makes a point to wake up before him in order to reapply her makeup. She thereafter feigns sleep until he wakes up to find her looking impossibly fresh—to little avail. They engage in just enough discussion to reveal it’s the first time she’s spent the whole night because it’s “against the rules” (i.e. his rules), and while she clearly seeks a relationship, he wants to keep things casual. She thus attempts to seduce him again, but even that plan backfires. He tells her, “This is so awkward. I want you to leave, but I don’t want to sound like a dick.”
According to director Paul Feig (during a Q and A session I attended), an earlier cut of this scene put Annie in even more denigrating circumstances. None too surprisingly, the test audience, the women in particular, reacted poorly, questioning why a woman would do that to herself. So they scaled back on the depths of Annie’s humiliation.
Now, I’m not here to debate the comedic merit of the resulting scene (though I myself found it wholly unfunny), where I believe it falls down is in its absence of context. This scene is our introduction to the protagonist, a character with whom we’re intended to sympathize, if not empathize, for the next 2+ hours. And by “we,” I mean women, the primary target audience. Yet, from the get-go, Annie demonstrates she has no respect for herself. And knowing nothing else about her prior to this scene, we the spectators are given no reason to respect her either.
On the flipside, we see a similar scenario in Amy Sherman-Palladino’s delightfully feminist-friendly series, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, though, wisely, it does not occur upon our initial introduction to heroine Miriam. First, we witness a stunning array of her impressive character traits, during which she earns not only our empathy but also our admiration and respect. And she makes us laugh. It is only after this introduction (which occurs in but a few minutes) that we learn this seemingly perfect wonder woman tricks her husband on a nightly basis by slipping out of bed once he is asleep to apply cold cream to her face and roll curlers in her hair. Then, come morning, she uses a clever ploy to wake up before him so she can remove the evidence, apply fresh makeup and feign sleep until he must “awaken” her, finding her as fresh and perfect as ever. In a later episode, we witness Miriam’s mom doing the same for/to her husband, thereby offering additional context as well as subtext—the passing of the patriarchal torch from mother to daughter. Now, that’s funny (and thought-provoking, too!)
So let’s compare and contrast:
BRIDESMAID’S Annie uses the makeup trick for the benefit of a man who treats her with no respect, thereby, perpetuating the myth that she’s there solely for his pleasure and convenience and thus further enabling the Harvey Weinsteins of the world.
Contrariwise, Miriam Maisel uses the makeup trick to reveal the first chink in her seemingly impenetrable armor. It reveals to us that she’s not the epitome of perfection as she appears. It’s an illusion that crumbles before our eyes, thus reinforcing the notion this is no way to live.
In short, we witness the exact same gag in both stories, but unlike the former, the latter example has the ginormous advantage of context. Too bad. Bridesmaids could have benefited from the same. Had we met Annie before the current opening scene, say during her struggle to keep her failing bakery business afloat, we might be quicker to forgive her bruised self-esteem and subsequent lapse in judgment in the bedroom. But as it’s our very first time we meet her, this anti-feminist behavior comes to define her. She elicits blame rather than understanding before we even get to know her.
I’ve no doubt there are those who will respond, “Lighten up, Devi. It’s only a comedy.” But therein lies the danger.
Alas, comedies and female-targeted films are especially prone to this lack of context, in part, because they’re considered throwaway genres not meant to be taken seriously. I’ve no doubt there are those who will respond, “Lighten up, Devi. It’s only a comedy.” But therein lies the danger. Comedies attract broad audiences, and because people think they’re harmless, said audiences often accept them without giving the films much, or any, thought. When that happens we become inured to bad behavior. Then we allow it to become normalized. And then we become part of the problem.
But we don’t have to. In fact, coming up soon, we’ll discuss a few ways to be part of the solution. Next up from me, however, a very feminist-friendly film that does NOT pass the Bechdel…
A former ballerina turned filmmaker, published fiction author and part-time film academic, Devi Snively is a proud alumnus of American Films Institute’s (AFI) Directing Workshop for Women and invited participant to the 2017 inaugural AFI/Fox Studios Bridge program. Her films have screened at over 500 festivals worldwide, garnering awards, distribution and critical acclaim.