By Silpa Kovvali
History will rightly view Bridesmaids as an important milestone in more ways than one. It was a female-driven comedy. It was a box office hit. And despite the ensemble of women at its center, its raunchy humor was characteristic of producer Judd Apatow. But as director Paul Feig suggested, Apatow-esque vulgarity is important for the underlying human sentiment it reveals. In buddy comedies that revolve around friendship between men, for example, characters want their friends to loosen up or to have a good time, however misguided their efforts. When a man acts in a passive-aggressive manner toward his buddy, his behavior stems from very real fears that the relationship will fade away and he’ll get left behind. Their insecurities, regardless of how unhealthily they manifest themselves, are flattering insofar as they display just how much these friendships mean to them.
In Bridesmaids, however, insecurities are presented as an inherent part of womanhood. Main character Annie (Kristen Wiig) is insecure about her relationships, she is insecure about her career, she is, of course, insecure about her weight. And apparently this insecurity is all entirely relatable, particularly when she meets a woman prettier than she is and dies a little inside. The movie was even touted as a “celebration of the bonds between women.” It’s a fascinating description, because I recognize the character of Annie as someone capable of compassion only when things have gone horribly awry, incapable of genuinely celebrating others’ happiness or success, who views her friends solely as comrades in mutual despair. There is a term for such people. It isn’t “really good pal.”
The movie doesn’t reluctantly abide by these conventions of women as jealous and unstable so much as it relishes them. “I have to go say hi to my aunt or she’ll get mad at my aunt,” one character whispers out of the blue, before scuttling off. Annie’s mother describes her father’s current wife as a “whore” who probably greets him “beaver first.” A woman whose boyfriend is about to propose worries that he “seems distant.” The characters who have children either hate them or are hated by them. None of the women who discuss their sex lives find them remotely satisfying. We might pretend that the portrayal of the film’s men as detestable, pathetic, sexually inept, and stupid is meant to make their female counterparts shine in comparison, but then what on earth are we to think of the women whose lives revolve around relationships with them?
If we are to recognize Bridesmaids for what it is, we must underscore the importance of its commercial success. It demonstrated that progress needn’t stem from charity by succeeding on its own merits as a funny film. But we must also appreciate that culture is inseparably intertwined with social norms. Entertainment can reinforce them at its worst or challenge them at its best. Actress Anna Faris once described her particularly problematic roles as “destroying a generation of boys, who think we’ll forgive any kind of assholey behavior.” Bridesmaids was not just touted as a money maker, but celebrated as a feminist victory. I will grant that it challenged the dominant Hollywood narrative that movies made by women about women couldn’t find an audience with men. But I will not grant that it challenged the dominant Hollywood portrayal of women on screen. When asked how making of this movie changed his conception of women, Feig’s answer was telling. “It reinforced,” he replied, “everything that I thought to be true.”
Of course, a step forward is a step forward even if we haven’t reached our destination. But for all the ways this film was groundbreaking it was also, in many ways, regressive. The message of Bridesmaids seems to be that you can wrap up trite stereotypes in lewdness to make them innovative and new. Because no one is willing to sift through the proverbial river of shit to discover what’s under the surface. We can celebrate precisely what this movie did accomplish, which was to make us laugh. We can recognize the significance of that laughter on a grander scale. But to hand it an Oscar represents something else entirely. It signifies that, in this cultural moment, it is the best we can do. And a generation of girls deserves better.
Silpa Kovvali is a group blogger for The Huffington Post living in NYC. Follow her on Twitter @SilpaKov.