“You know her,” Debbie Harry croons in the song that plays over the opening credits to Bridesmaids. “Her,” in this case, is Annie (Kristen Wiig), whom we’ve just seen, in the movie’s first scene, having bad sex with a pretty-boy cad (Jon Hamm) and then sneaking into the bathroom at the crack of dawn to reapply her makeup so that he’ll still find her attractive when he wakes up. Hamm’s character falls for the ruse, but kicks her out anyway—“This is going to sound awful, but I really want you to leave now.” Unable to open the electronic gate to his driveway, she tries to climb over it, only to be stuck on top when it suddenly opens from the outside. As she swings helplessly across, waving to the befuddled housekeeper who pressed the switch, the drumbeats start up. “You know her,” Harry sings over and over, in a tone at once seductive and vaguely threatening.
The choice of song is sly. We know her, the ditsy blond in a raunchy comedy who pokes her head up among the boys like a peony in a bunch of cattails: bright, fragrant, and quickly disposed of. As the actress Anna Faris—who has played no small number of these roles herself—put it in a recent New Yorker profile by Tad Friend, these parts are “bounce-card roles,” named after “the reflective sheet that softens the light around an actor.” Friend’s revelatory piece was filled with bombshells delivering bombshells—juicy quotes from female actresses, screenwriters, and producers expressing exactly how dissatisfied they are with the current state of the comedy. “I hated being on that movie so much I was glad when it bombed,” Faris says of My Super Ex-Girlfriend, in which her role, as Friend describes it, consisted of “allowing Luke Wilson to admire her ass.” “These roles,” Faris continues, “are destroying a whole generation of boys.”
That’s where Bridesmaids comes in. The genius of this anti-romantic comedy is that for once we do know Annie, who’s not just an ass but something resembling a real woman. This was hardly to be expected from the boys’ club presided over by Judd Apatow, whose previous works (Superbad, Knocked Up) reek of the frat house. (Wiig wrote the part herself, together with her best friend, Annie Mumolo, after Apatow generously told her that, if she came up with a screenplay, he’d produce it.) We know her, all right—tossed out of bed by the jerk she’s sleeping with, driving her ratty car, with her failed business and her awful roommates and her clueless mother. She’s us, run completely off the rails—the person we’d be if we said whatever we wanted to say and followed all our most reckless impulses without worrying about wrecking our lives.
But Bridesmaids left me feeling down, and not only because I’ve never been pulled over by a cop as lenient as Officer Rhodes, the unfailingly nice guy who functions as Annie’s afterthought of a love interest. It was because the movie’s premise—woman sinks to heretofore-unforeseen depths and claws her way back up—still feels manipulative and misogynist even when women are doing the writing. And the fact that it’s a big deal when a character like this appears in a mainstream comedy says a lot less about Bridesmaids—a funny, adventurous, but ultimately conventional film—than it does about the culture that created it.
It’s not news that the situation for women in Hollywood is awful: The Los Angeles Times recently reported that, on the 250 top-earning films of 2010, women held only 16 percent of major jobs, such as actor or producer—a figure that hasn’t budged since 1998, when San Diego’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film first started keeping track. Women make up only 7 percent of Hollywood film directors. But Friend’s article, which laid out in devastating detail just how bad things have gotten—“The decision to make movies is mostly made by men, and if men don’t have to make movies about women they won’t,” an anonymous top studio executive told him—had a galvanizing effect. A viral campaign spearheaded by female screenwriters, directors, and journalists exhorted women to turn out for Bridesmaids at the box office. “Seriously, we have to see this movie this weekend. … If we don’t go, they won’t build them anymore,” the producer Lynda Obst wrote on Facebook. Rebecca Traister argued in Salon, tongue only halfway in cheek, that seeing Bridesmaids was a “social responsibility”: “Yes we can … buy tickets to a Kristen Wiig movie in an effort to persuade Hollywood that multidimensional women exist, spend money and deserve to be represented on film.”
The campaign was successful: Bridesmaids grossed $26.2 million over opening weekend, second only to Thor ($34.5 million). I saw it Saturday night in a theater packed with couples and male-female groups, proving that it wasn’t only women driving those numbers. “If this is only a chick flick, then call me a chick,” wrote the Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern. The reviews were almost universally ecstatic, although some questioned the necessity of the film’s raunchiest scene, a food-poisoning-generated barf-fest that takes place, in a brilliant touch, in a bridal shop with wall-to-wall white carpeting. (Wiig, in a Times magazine profile, revealed that Apatow and the director added that scene to the script over her initial protests.) “Too many studio bosses seem to think that a woman’s place is in a Vera Wang,” the New York Times’ always brilliant Manohla Dargis wrote in her review—implying that the wedding dress sacrificed in the food-poisoning scene gets what it deserves.
But Bridesmaids, in its tulle-trimmed wake, leaves unanswered some serious questions about exactly how far the “female-driven” film—those movies about women that men don’t want to make—can go. (In a wonderfully ironic moment on a video accompanying his Faris profile, just as Friend comments, “Studio executives don’t like to make films that they call ‘female-driven,’” the screen cuts to a shot of Faris removing her shirt.) “To make a woman adorable,” yet another disaffected woman in Hollywood—this one a screenwriter—tells Tad Friend (again anonymously), “you have to defeat her at the beginning. It’s a conscious thing I do—abuse and break her, strip her of her dignity, and then she gets to live out our fantasies and have fun.” This is precisely what happens to Annie, and not only at the beginning: We watch her lose her dignity over and over again. Yes, debasement is in large part what comedy is about; and yes, a lot of the debasement that Wiig experiences in Bridesmaids is inflicted not by men but by other women—or even herself. (I’m thinking of the scene where Annie drives by Rhodes’s car repeatedly trying to get his attention, probably my favorite in the movie.) But I’m tired of watching movies that ask me to cheer while women get beaten up.
Male actors, of course, debase themselves in comedy too—the evidence is in basically any Ben Stiller film (although, even so, it was Cameron Diaz who wound up with semen in her hair in There’s Something About Mary). The difference is that female characters are meant to be “relatable” (as our disaffected Hollywood screenwriter puts it) in a way that male characters don’t need to be. When men watch a movie like My Super Ex-Girlfriend, There’s Something About Mary, or even (as long as we’re talking about raunch) Wayne’s World, I don’t think they see themselves. These comedies are less about “relatability” than superiority: The male characters are weird-looking (and the movies accentuate their weirdness); they’re clueless and proud of it; and, if they get the girl, it’s usually by accident. The Bridesmaids equivalent of these roles is Megan, the lewd, obese sister-in-law played by Melissa McCarthy, who gets some of the film’s funniest lines but is also relentlessly mocked for her unattractiveness.
But Annie, well, we know her—she’s attractive (but not too beautiful), smart (but not overly brainy), and a loyal friend (but not a pushover). She’s us—not only in ways we fear we already are, but in ways we hope we might someday be. And so, when Debbie Harry sings, “You know her,” it’s a little chilling that the song’s chorus goes on to exhort, “Come on, rip her to shreds.” That opening scene, when Annie’s bed partner kicks her out, is so painful that there was a collective gasp in the theater after Hamm delivered his line.
We know that Apatow can do a full-fledged female character without ripping her to shreds, because he did it in his previous collaboration with Bridesmaids director Paul Feig, “Freaks and Geeks”—that short-lived but much-adored TV show that launched the careers of James Franco, Seth Rogen (who would have thought?), and Jason Segel. But what about Linda Cardellini? She played Lindsey Weir, who was confused and funny and altogether the most realistic and complicated teenage girl ever to appear on network television. And she did it not by mimicking the testosterone-fueled antics of Franco, Rogen, and Segel—all of whom have gone on to profitable careers in Apatowland and elsewhere—but with her own subtle acting. Watching “Freaks and Geeks” just over a decade ago, I would never have predicted that Segel (weird-looking and manic) and Rogen (weird-looking and depressive) would be the big stars to rise out of that show while the lovely and talented Cardellini remains in minor TV roles. (Franco, on the other hand …) But I also didn’t yet know that the right to barf on screen would one day be heralded as a touchstone of women’s equality in film.
“What I lived as feminism were in fact the male values my parents, among others, well-meaningly bequeathed to me,” Rachel Cusk writes poignantly in the new issue of Granta, in which the theme is feminism or, as the magazine tellingly calls it, “The F Word.” There can be no true equality as long as men—men’s tastes, men’s beliefs, men’s prerogatives—remain the standard by which we measure the norm. Men’s desires matter to Hollywood because it’s assumed that men make the decisions about how couples spend their time and money. This isn’t a problem that a movie can solve.
Ruth Franklin is a senior editor at The New Republic.
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