Some thoughts on Bridesmaids, and the Bridesmaids thing

by zunguzungu

Does the whole “see Bridesmaids for feminism” thing (first see Carla Fran and Millicent, then read Rebecca Traister at Salon, Jamie Denbo at Huffington Post, Irin Carmon at Jezebel) distract you from the fact that this movie is a movie? Would that be bad? Good? A non-issue? From whence, in short, comes the fact that this movie is not normal? And where should it go?

A few thoughts. For one thing, as Carla Fran pointed out that Lindy West pointed out, the marketing campaign for this movie has been strange and alienating and stupid. “These are smart, funny women…given room to create indelible characters. Did I just blow your mind!?” would be exhibit A, along with the declaration that women’s movies (“Movies Like These”?) are terrible, because of chicks and stuff, you know, amirite?

But that’s just the beginning. It’s also worth noting that every visual element of the poster on the right is flagrantly untrue to the movie, almost deceptively so (compare it to this representative shot from the movie itself, for example). Start with the perfectly matched set of Barbie dolls we see lined up against a brick wall? (And why a brick wall? Are they supposed to be prostitutes? I’m baffled.) Other than the fairly brief wedding scene itself, the only time we see all the actresses wearing their bridesmaid uniforms is in the fitting scene, when they are each wearing different bridesmaid outfit — since they are arguing over which one they’ll choose — and then we see them vomit and poop on those very dresses in a way that’s so far from the affectedly effortless sexy of the lineup to the right as to be completely perverse. And the poses are also strikingly wrong. Rose Byrne’s character (far right) is a nouveau riche aspirant to an elegance she can’t quite master, such that her out-thrust hip and “hello sailor” look are deeply strange. I shouldn’t need to say much about inappropriateness of the heroin-chic listlessness of the two principle heroines (second and third from the right), but it is worth noting that Ellie Kemper (third from left) is always the very picture of demure modesty in the movie itself — not here — while Wendy McLendon-Covey (second from left) plays a tired, worn housewife, not someone who would wear pigtails of that sort. And Melissa McCarthy’s (far left) inexplicably long skirt is exactly the wrong way to portray the revelation she turns out to be on-screen, particularly because it turns out to be kind of important that we see so much of her legs in the film itself.

Read this first reaction to the poster (written when it was released in January) for a great example of the kind of misinterpretation it must have been crafted to facilitate:

…take five funny ladies, dress them in punky pink frocks worthy of Totally Hair Barbie and watch the hilarity that ensues as they try to get their friend down the aisle.

That’s a competent reading of that poster; that’s not what the movie is about.

So what is the movie about? I think it’s worth saying that this movie is (or should be) utterly normal, in the sense that it basically belongs to the genre of movies that Judd Apatow puts his name to. The ending is not exactly the same as the ending to Superbad, but the structuring conflict is quite comparable: what does a heterosexual bonding do to a homosocial friendship? As Millicent points out,

“When Lillian, hiding under her covers, says she’ll never live in her apartment again, that she won’t be down the block from Annie, that she worries about what’ll happen to Annie, to their friendship … those things are unutterable, unanswerable, and true. Every woman who has watched a friend walk down the aisle and realized that things will never be the same can recognize the power of that scene, the exquisite pain of the private loss that goes hand-in-hand with the celebration of a public union.”

That’s very, very much like the escalator moment in Superbad, down to the kind of public-private distinction (and not unlike what drives the end of Knocked Up, once you’ve corrected for the misogyny). The central dramatic epiphany of the movie is also akin to the crucial moment in Forgetting Sarah Marshall — as I argued here — which is when Jason Segal realizes that he has been his own worst enemy all along, that his refusal to try has been the problem he’s been externalizing onto others, and that he has to get his own shit in order before he can manage a happy hetero-pairing. Bridesmaids also does this same thingm where the fixed-by-love possibility is gestured towards before the protagonist is ready for it: the scene where Chris O’Dowd tries to help her bake (and the souffle collapses) dramatizes exactly the same impossibility of an external solution when the problem is internal, and — eventually — we will see that the hetero-couple only get together after the main plot has been resolved. Only when the protagonist has dealt with her own shit can she be rewarded with a man. Role Models works this way, too, and Forty Year Old Virgin.

I could go on for a while in this vein, but that would be my point: in terms of narrative structure and thematic tone, this movie is similar in enough to these bromance peers for them to be its peers. Only it’s about women! ZOMG! So then… does that fact affect the mode of genre criticism I’m deploying here? Do we celebrate it or do we ignore it? What could we say about it that wouldn’t be as unsatisfying as the poster?

One way to frame the problem would be that while celebrating its innovation makes us overlook the movie’s basic consistency with its genre, ignoring the present unheard-of-ness of a female-centric analog to the bromance (which is what makes the existence of so conventional a movie such a thing) would still cause us to underestimate the minefield it had to walk across to get made, and perhaps, the trail it opens up.* It leaves us in a conundrum: do we deprive the movie of its normality by pointing out the burden of representation it has no choice but to carry, or do we overlook the structural obstacles it’s navigating if we try to stress the basic generic conventions through which it’s written?

This is probably a false dilemma, but the marketing campaign makes more sense if we think of it as a symptom of this problem, a clumsy response to a set of expectations it isn’t ready to manage, and has never really had to think about before. For example, observe how the principal men involved in the production talk about the movie. Paul Feig — the movie’s director — made it clear in an interview that this movie was, from the beginning, framed as a putting-women-into-movies kind of thing, an opportunity for him “to launch really funny women” in a Hollywood that didn’t have space for them:

I always feel that women get short shrift in movies and TV and all that. And we know so many funny women, and I’m also such a big fan of Kristen’s, who is one of the funniest women on the planet, and so Bridesmaids always stuck with me…

[In making the movie] we were really following their lead. It wasn’t a couple of guys telling women how to act and what’s funny; it was the other way around…Neither Judd nor I feel like we can say to women, “No, it’s this!” We can guide the story along and make sure the emotion all works and tracks and everything, but we really wanted their voices and their input, and they gave it to us quite well.

The story comes uncomfortably close to a blow for feminism being struck by the established Hollywood boys club. And we are left marveling at how Paul Feig is just the man for this job: as he told the AV club, “one of my strong suits is writing for women and knowing about women.” That’s a really unfortunate sentence.

Still, to say that Apatow and Feig are finding ways to re-narrate the making of the movie as men-guiding-women-into-expressing-themselves would probably be unfair. It’s partially true, but (movie poster aside) they also seem to have mostly had the sense to realize their relative unimportance and to stay out of the way enough to make the movie work. Or at least that’s my guess; whether they got “input” from Wiig and Co or whether they followed their lead are two very different things, and I tend to suspect that the movie simply wouldn’t have turned out as well as it did in the ways that it did if it had been a lot more of the former than the latter.

So is a “womance” — as Millicent calls it — basically the same as a “bromance,” or is it in some way fundamentally different?

I dunno! I did note, though, that while the movie passes the Bechdel test in something like six minutes, it probably wouldn’t pass the reverse Bechdel test, were such a thing to exist. There are some men in it, kind of, but the closest they come to talking to each other is when Jon Hamm yells/dismisses “Thank you officer!” to Chris O’Dowd, who does not reply. And in that scene, they’re really talking to Kristin Wiig, and the movie declines to allow a scrap of drama between them: Hamm never knows O’Dowd exists (nor cares), and since O’Dowd directs his anger exclusively at Wiig, there’s never a moment when the two men could have found themselves locked in any kind of relation exclusive of Wiig. No mimetic triangle between the men ever obtains.

I wonder what level of intentionality that indicates. It certainly wouldn’t need much, and perhaps that’s exactly the point: when you build a movie around a three woman plot, add four female co-stars, and then lock it in with two hetero-love interests — one good, one bad — the logic of that narrative system will inevitably marginalize the men as a structural plot element. Here, Jon Hamm is simply an oblivious and external manifestation of the protagonist’s internal malaise (dumped by her boyfriend, her bakery destroyed by the recession, all combining to produce her conviction that her life going nowhere), while Chris O’Dowd’s efforts to fix her will fail because he can only represent her successful re-integration/resolution/socialization into the life she has to lead after the two disasters with which she is contending have been fully realized: the loss of her best friend (to Wedding) and the loss of her bakery (to the recession).

The men are, in this sense, exactly what the love interests are in most male-centered movies are, simply externalized projections of the protagonist’s ego. Which is why Melissa McCarthy’s repeated Fight Club reference is so very smart: like Edward Norton’s insistence on externalizing his internal problems so he can be excused from trying to solve them, Wiig’s character is haunted by ghosts of herself — possible alternate ego ideals or nightmare visions of the person she doesn’t want to be or let herself be — and the movie’s conclusion comes as a function of her reconciliation with them (and through them, what they represent to her). This also helps demonstrate why intention is unnecessary, precisely why — in fact — movies built around three men, a handful of co-stars (usually mostly men), and one or two female love interests will always tend to fail the real Bechdel test: not because women were actively excluded from the screen, but because the internal logic of the narrative places them external to the plot’s driving logic of gender. The real plot will be internal to the men — and their male doubles, phantoms, and rivals — while the externalized feminine element can only symptomatize success or failure, temptation or success, harpy or conquest. When every movie is made by Seth Rogen, in other words, he doesn’t have to be a sexist for the female to become an unthinkable vehicle for comedy. But when every movie is made by Seth Rogen — as they were in 2007-8 — the most normal of films, a conventional bromance starring a bunch of funny and smart and indelible women, for example, becomes the most noteworthy of things.

Have you seen it? What do you think?

* As Carla Fran points out, British shows like Pulling have already done this work in spades. also, please see her on the “Sloppy Jane.”