The Leaking Conquest

Dear Millicent,

Hi! Welcome to this new day, one wherein Hollywood and comedians insist they always thought women were funny.  A reviewer on my NPR station said, “I don’t understand what the big deal about  Bridesmaids is. Apatow has always made women the smartest characters in his movies. This time, women are gross. So?” A writer acquaintance who once said “I just don’t write comedy for women,” said with great and serious gusto “Bridesmaids is important for comedy.”

The monsieur I went to see the movie  with was wowed. “It’s so much more than a girl’s comedy,” he said, a huge compliment.  And I hunched over.  I thought of Lindy West. I squinted, trying to think if I would have said the same thing after The Hangover, commending it on being more than a boy’s comedy.  You know the answer.

We are all excited about this movie. I was hoping for this great coming of women in comedy when I saw the trailer, and my fingers are still crossed for the continuation of whatever trend Apatow is building as he also produces Lena Dunham’s HBO show Girls.  I will admit, I got cautious when I saw all the emails and tweets about it being a social responsibility to see this movie.  I worried it was a great viral PR scheme…that Apatow had approached women’s comedy as an act of ego, to play all us feminists and prove us wrong about our criticisms of him.  I like the happy idea that he had a great veil-lifting, and realized the flatness of his female characters, and instantly went out to correct the imbalance that he was part of, and a bit of a mascot for.  But I doubt that.  It’s too perfect. Instead, it seems like another time to type out the cliche’ that I use in almost every post about Hollywood: how nice it must be to have cake and eat it too.  It just seems weird that it is a social responsibility to pay money to prove that a female audience exists (already known). Or to show that women would like more from their onscreen representations (already known).  It wasn’t women’s social responsibility to carry this movie, it was dudes’.  Hollywood needs proof that men will show up for a movie where a woman shits her wedding dress.

Interestingly, the previews at my theater before the show did not promise a continuation of this trend.  Instead, there was an all guy remake of 9 to 5, and a male Freaky Friday about marriage and bachelorhood.

But I sound sour, and Bridesmaids did not leave me sour.  It left me….relevant.  I felt seen.  I felt existed.  Doesn’t that sound crazy? That one dumb movie could do that?  But, watching Wiig work through jealousy and general life-shittiness was wonderful.  The way she talked to herself in her car, the way she had a private world (the cupcake!), the fact that a woman was called an “asshole” and it fit, were all minor revelations of what real people do, including that half of the population, us.  We had a movie soaking in the truth that women are as fucked up as men! Life According to Jim for everyone!

Speaking of that diarrhea scene, I immediately thought of Subashini‘s fantastic take on Awkward Women, which aligns with the pre-Bridesmaids rules for Apatow’s women:

Awkwardness indicates a lack of ordering and policing, but for a woman to relax and slip up means bleeding all over the place, even after the invention of the tampon. To relax and slip up can also mean an unwanted penis inside you, or perhaps a wanted penis, but then again, with undesirable consequences if one is not careful. There is that pesky thing that women have: The Womb. Sex, even when it’s fun, can quickly become unfun with the weight of pregnancy. The potential for a girl or a woman to become a mother is always there, underlying even meaningless sexual intercourse. And mothers are always policing social norms, are they not? The father lays down the rule, but the mother implements the rules. Women just can’t laugh or be awkward. They stand rigid and unbending and unsmiling, like an army of governesses from hell.

Here we have several leaking, unpregnant, unadorable, unrigid,  challenges.  As Subashini goes onto to say, the awkward woman is usually insane, a chaotic threat to world order (hello Nighty Night!).  So, the fact that our women in Bridesmaids shit and puke over every surface they can find in the interestingly pure and patriarchal setting of a bridal shop, is divine.  I said in a recent post that when we see a woman running in a wedding dress, it’s exciting because we see a woman fighting the system.  Here, it changes. When we see a woman shitting in the street in a wedding dress, my fingers are crossed we see a woman shitting on said system.

I will still argue that Bridesmaids is weak sauce compared to the likes of  Pulling and all the other amazing three-dimensional representations of women that have been in no way celebrated the way this Hollywood approved version of things has been.   Nevertheless, Bridesmaids does stand as a great case for more.  The angle of the jokes whispered how much comedy has been lost by not including women’s real perspectives. Examples:

  • The joke of Helen’s full out gown at the engagement party.  I have never seen a visual gown joke in a dude-normative comedy.  It did so much work so fast, and was visually compelling, as well as instantly funny.
  • A mother of 3 boys says “everything is covered in semen. Once, I cracked a blanket in half.” See, it still the same stuff we’re always laughing about, semen, but this time, it’s about the lady’s encounter with it.  It’s a joke that’s hilarious to everybody, and an observation that has been missing because mom’s never get to talk, usually. How have we not heard that before?  It’s a grand, filthy all-inclusive joke. And, it catches men in the self consciousness of their bodily humors in a rare way (I think of it as the male equivalent to the period blood stain in Superbad).   
  • Moms! Wiig’s mother is not a cartoon, but she is unhelpful and wacky like parents are.  I still think the best mother I’ve ever seen is Louie CK’s mom on Louie, but this mom was another beacon of the fact that I was welcome here.  I recognized that woman.  Same with Maya Rudolph’s dad.  It’s always a sign of life when even the minor characters has full plates of dimension, even if it is short work.
Other commendations:
  • Melissa McCarthy stole the show for me.  And while the audience actually squealed “Ewww” when she showed her leg to her love interest, her character was a direct challenge to that “Eww.”  Yes, they have her run first into the restaurant, and she has the hassle of other cheap jokes, but her character is an amazing foil to Wiig’s.  She is successful, and with an unabashed sexual appetite, and an unabashed sense of self.  When she says “I know you couldn’t guess now, but it was hard for me in high school,” she means it.  She in no way considers herself a victim or another person’s joke. She is winning.   She is a model of self-love, and the appropriate agent to point out Wiig’s sadsackery.  And kudos to the costumers for giving her that pearl necklace (and dear lord, why does that feel filthy to type? It really was made of pearls, and a necklace!).  Initially, I thought the necklace was off-base, suggesting a properness that didn’t fit, but as her character gets established, it tidily proves that her success has been there all along.
  • Irish guy from the IT Crowd. Nicely done.
  • Thank you JESUS for a cast of women with bodies.
  • Jealousy, class, money, and the tensions of friendship! Such rich stuff! So immediately connective!
  • That the ultimate “perfect wedding” is still super tacky (lasers! waterfalls! Tim Heidecker!), because weddings are unavoidably so, in one way or another.
My last notes are about nostalgia, which might be our current trend in comedy, and one that I fall for every time.  You bring on Wilson Phillips, and you got me.  And, while I charge Your Highness et al with a great romance for scripts of masculinity from the past, I charge Bridesmaids with enjoying the same, but ladystyle.  Because, when you get right down to it, Bridesmaids is 16 Candles, down to the pink bridesmaids dress, and the love interest (JAKE!), leaning on the car outside of the church.  And, there’s cake.
What did you think, dearest? Is this a moment? A start? An echo that has the power to make a boom?
Yours,
CF
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Our Men: The Powers/CK Continuum

We write a lot here about men in movies, and the imbalance of their female counterparts. The Sloppy Joe is really just the Normal Joe. Meanwhile, the Sloppy Jane is a sore sight for sore eyes that aren’t used to looking into the sun. (Also, I have to make a loud, brusque, and phlegmy cough of ahem! to David Denby’s lukewarm observation in a review of Hall Pass that “women, however, may be insulted in other ways: onscreen, they are rarely the ones who get to act up. They’re usually solid and sane–good, loyal, colorless, hardworking girlfriends and wives.”…May be, Denby? May be?).

But, let’s look at the Sloppy Joes out there that are certainly part of the posse (both the Hollywood gender vacuum, and the posse of me, you and anybody else that would come to our party), and not part of the problem. I want to assert here that Louis CK, in his role as Louis CK on the show Louie, and the bombastic Mr. Kenny Powers of Eastbound and Down offer a spectrum of modern masculinity, its shapes, its foibles, its merits and demerits.  I think they are the Sloppy Joe of our dreams, or at least, the men that Apatow’s boys are supposed to be.

The fucked up protagonist, fully launched into our collective sub-conscious with David Brent in 2001, has become such a staple and mandate that television execs are suggesting it is as passe’ and lucrative as vampires (at least this is what I overheard at my local coffeeshop where we all talk loudly about doing important things).  Depressed may well be out, because CK has cornered that market so well on his FX show.  As long as he keeps producing, I’m okay if he is the only supplier of sad man out there for awhile. This is because what he does is startling. I would offer that CK is the male Munro…just as Alice Munro catalogs how women’s lives are not made of miracles, CK would very much like to take all the gloss off, and show that plain living is made of shit and life. Under the initial layer of middle age and divorce chronicles, the show takes on what it is to be a man and the wobbles of masculinity (and not in the “should I be a dad or not” angst).  He isn’t portraying rites of growth or understanding. He shows the ambiguous part of having balls. I don’t think I’ve seen anything else like it, except in key Sloppy Jane roles (again, the glorious Munro, Poppy in Happy Go Lucky, Sylvia Plath…). Our regularly scheduled schlumps (Life According to Jim, any Seth Rogen role, well, all any man starring in a movie where he is not wearing a beautifully tailored suit), don’t do this kind of work.  They exist in their messes (messes that any actress would be lucky to get a chance at), but their saccharine revelations are more of a kind of fable porn, where all struggle reveals sweet lessons and profoundity: angsty confused men grow up to be good men, and thus the hard part is over. CK is already grown up. He sits in his mess, and carries on.

And then we have Kenny Powers, who can mostly be summed up as a major dick.  He is a worst fear of American masculinity (the majorest dick): arrogant, racist, misogynist, uncouth, drunk, raging, scared, self-serving, and blind to all others but himself. He belches, he slaps asses, he brags about women ovulating all over his jetski handlebars. He betrays those closest to him constantly. And, he’s a sports hero. For all the fun of his rants and horrible behavior (the writers are smart here to win from the foulness of his character, and calling dibs on knowing he is an asshole), Powers is working in the same waters as CK: how to be a dude, and how restraining and nebulous expected gender roles can be.

Powers is so sunk by his own macho self-narrative that he constantly causes himself pain. As much as he swaggers in the first season, you just as often see a scared man who doesn’t know how to admit failure, or a scared man who cannot live up to his own mouth.  He only knows how to relate to the world through the demonstrations of alpha status: wealth, ladies, and domination. But the real world he returns to after he burns out in baseball make a mockery of these tools. They are small attempts, or gilded impostors (a leased truck, absolute rule over 7th graders, a disregard for insurance law). He always looks like a chump. The show delights in the myth of Kenny, the fun of his badassery, and it is delightful. But ultimately, creators Danny McBride and Jody Hill are taking on the failures of a rigid and mythic masculinity.

I also give the writers a high commendation for their allegiance to the jet-ski, which becomes a running metaphor for the grandiosity of Powers’ self-narrative. And the scope is large.  Jeffrey Sconce, in a post tiled “Burdened White Men”, also comparing CK and Powers,  noted that

If Eastbound and Downwere simply about beating up on Kenny Powers, who remains oddly sympathetic despite burning through life as a testosterone tornado that emotionally destroys everyone in his path, the series would get old quick.  Luckily, the show is smart enough to link the fate of the mulleted, super-awesome, and sociopathic Kenny to a parallel crisis in America’s collapsing confidence and identity.

Kenny Powers does seem to be a worst nightmare of America, as well as of a son, neighbor, or loverman. And yet, I still really like him, and want him to win. Like David Brent, I really don’t want to see him humiliated. His fucked up heart isn’t exactly his fault…he just needs more self-esteem (wait, I thought that was girl’s problem?).

Sconce also commends the challenging work these shows are doing, even if they are another set of odes to the white man’s lament of living well in the western world. As far as Sloppy Joes go, these two just might take your breath away.  Both rip open expectations of masculine identity and poke around at what’s underneath: the lovely and the icky bits that are suffocating together.

And, because I live off of Netflix, I am late to both of these parties. Louie is available on Netflix Instant, while season one of Eastbound & Down is on DVD. Both shows will have a new season this fall.

Sloppy Jane

Dear Millicent,

Because the Nu woman is such a hard label to talk around (I say it out loud and it seems to mean nothing), I am renaming her the Sloppy Jane. No, the Sloppy Jane is not a new sexual position, but it is still for the advanced.  The Sloppy Jane is that rare female protagonist who is as flummoxed, average, and compelling as men are portrayed, and who usually has a messy life that is full of unguarded or foibled moments of humanity.

And, as we have talked about before, the Brits are really good at writing Sloppy Janes, and the Americans aren’t. I would even argue that the Brits are so good at it that they have created an overdose of the Sloppy Jane.  Julia Davis’ Nighty Night was recommended to me by commenters here, and I crown Davis The Uber Jane. She is one of the most, perhaps the most, uncomfortable and unlikeable women I have ever seen take on television. She finds a panty liner in shrimp salad that she is serving to guests at dinner, and simply picks it out before serving more.  Her dog poops on her kitchen floor, and she blames the turds on her wheelchair bound nemesis. She is as over the top as a classic Sloppy Joe, David Brent for example, but she is much much harder to excuse.

In 2004, The Guardian, in an article title “The Witches” wondered if Davis had changed sitcoms forever:

It wasn’t until Absolutely Fabulous unleashed upon the world Edina and Patsy – especially Patsy – that we really had a proper introduction to women behaving badly.

Yet no one is a patch on Jill. In evolutionary terms, she is a huge leap forward, a feat of genetic engineering. The Office might have popularised the comedy of embarrassment, but Nighty Night has moved it on. The monstrous woman has arrived. Best be nice to her.

Also of interest, several female comedians are asked their take on Davis’ character “Jill”, and several reference the impossibility of an unlikeable protagonist until Gervais’ The Office. The article is a fun read, especially for Catherine Tate’s take on unattractive characters in comedy:

Apart from Friends, comedy is rarely glamorous. You’ve got to compromise your dignity in some way for it to work and what’s nice about grotesque characters is that they display a lack of vanity. I think women now are not frightened to appear unattractive, as unpleasant characters. Characters work best when they’re a mixture of recognition and exaggeration and the funnier you can look within the realms of naturalism, the better. It’s through the mouths of these grotesques that you can get away with things you couldn’t otherwise. I do a character of an old woman who says things that, on a script in black and white, would be unacceptable. That these characters don’t believe they’re wrong is what makes it funny while taking the edge off the offence.

But that article was in 2004. Nighty Night went off the air in 2005 (though Darren Star is/was producing a US version). What monstrous Sloppy Janes are still out there, especially on this side of the pond?

Here’s my working list, with high hopes to add more. They range from empathetic three-dimensionality, to intense grotesqueries of heart and spirit.

  1. Toni Collette, United States of Tara
  2. Alexandra Goodworth, Head Case (a Netflix wonder)
  3. Lisa Kudrow, in most roles she takes
  4. Felicia Day, The Guild
  5. Jennifer Anniston, Management (and I could be argued out of this one)

Who else do we need to crown Ms. Sloppy Jane USA?

Yours,

CF