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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Part 2: The Brits Get It

Dear Millicent,

So, as far as accepting and reveling in the fact that women are as uncertain and undefined (unshaped? we do wear formative undergear), America is kind of one note.  We have raunchy women (Chelsea Handler, Margaret Cho), we have shocking women (Sarah Silverman), we have mature irreverent women (Bette Midler, Whoopi Goldberg, Bonnie Hunt), etc.  Usually, they more or less stay in the bounds of their particular stable.  Women are allowed to be all of these things, but they have to stay in their compartments, just as a Sex in the City character must stay in costume as if they were assigned Power Ranger Colors.

In part 1 of my ramble on women and comedy, I introduced the Nu woman (a label that sounds irritatingly like a birth control brand).  What I meant by it is a woman 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.  This means she is not a smart Miranda, a creative fucked up Carrie, a sweet Charlotte, or a ravenous Samantha.  She is a dash of all of them, and some other stuff that Patricia Field will never get to accessorize.

The Brits, who have a long history of not demanding perfection from their televisions (see jokes about teeth, unhappy endings. etc.), understand the Nu woman, and benefit in spades. Their television is at least twice as good as ours, and at times is actually perfect (I attribute some of this to the fact that they are willing to end shows before they collapse in on themselves, usually limiting a show to 2 seasons with a reunion special somewhere down the line.)

When asked who she would want to direct her movie “Best Buds,” which promises to be a Nu woman heavy film starring Natalie Portman, screenwriter Jamie Denbo said:

“Somebody with a great comedic sensibility, who doesn’t distinguish between male and female comedy. So basically, somebody British. It seems to be a very American thing, distinguishing between male and female comedy. Overseas it feels like, If it’s funny, it’s funny.”

Here’s the proof in the pudding:

1.) Green Wing: In this show, the women are as sexually voracious, despicable, introspective, and timid and coarse as any of the equally extreme male characters.  Dick jokes abound, as do vagina jokes, and calls on male violence, female jealousy, and all the very ugly things that people do to each other to answer their own needs.  It’s a ridiculous show, and a marvelous one.  Topics include incest, seduction, murder plots, and apparitions of Jesus as well as passing exams, kissing too many people at parties, and the difficulties of having a roommate with wonderful hair. The two standout women are Michelle Gomez who plays Sue White and Pippa Haywood who plays Joanna Clore.  Both woman are masters of physical comedy, and neither shy away from very direct gags about female sexuality.   When I first saw this show, I had seen nothing like it, which is ashame, because it skewers and reveals in the way that only brilliant comedy can.

2.) Spaced: Spaced was written partly by Jessica Hynes who is also an odd saint on this site, a la her character Daisy Steiner.  Daisy lives with Simon Pegg’s equally effed up character, as they both mope around and try to figure out a life that isn’t exactly finding them.  Daisy is an inspiration because she thinks she is grander than she is, she futzes and is happy to eat chips and watch television, and she is a lackluster pet owner.  She is an aspiring writer, with all of the narrative, and none of the rest of it.  She is a wonderful mess, and one that was a balm to my own messy heart.  The first female character I had seen that was so honestly ungood and reaching. The show does an amazing job of articulating that particular pang of late twentyhood, and it is neither slick nor snarky.  A rare feat, and she and Pegg are equal foundations for it.

3.) The Book Group: Okay, an American wrote this…but she wrote it for Scottish television.  The protagonist is portrayed without glamor or sympathy, and by the end of season 2, eveyr chance of a classic formula arriving is squashed.  It is an assault on the narratives we tell ourselves.   Creator Annie Griffin seriously delights in refuting the neat endings of any character, emotion, or happenstance.  It is gloriously messy, confusing, and ugly–again making for a sum total of something that is fascinating to participate in. Also, it stars the divine Michelle Gomez, who does not let us down.

4.) Peep Show: Peep Show is a male heavy show, but I bring our attention to Nu woman Sophie, who starts as love interest and becomes a bit of an albatross to both characters.  She is as effed as both our narrators, and unapologetic as she clumsily navigates in and out of the plot.  One could argue that she is there only for Mark and Jez’s growth, except that her performances (especially at her wedding) are so pivotal and grotesque, and understandable, that she is very much in the pantheon (and she also stars on Green Wing, where she quietly does a stunt on motherhood, sexuality, and doddiness that will amaze).  Also, the show insists men are as self-conscious as women are often portrayed.

5.) Lizzie and Sarah:  I know less about this show, except that it is written by Jessica Hynes, of Spaced, and that it has been described as

“challenging comedy. Lizzie and Sarah are two suburban housewives (played by Davis and Hynes) whose lives suddenly go very wrong – although, as it turns out, things had actually been going very wrong for a long time. The humour is brutal enough to make Nighty Night look like You’ve Been Framed, and there are moments of cruelty so biting that it’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry; spousal abuse, murder, grief and adultery are all thrown into the mix. It would be easy to dismiss it as shocking for the sake of being shocking, were it not also brilliant. It’s funny, inventive and angry comedy, and there’s little that can compare.”

Hopefully, this all hops the pond soon.  Drew Barrymore recently said about Whip It!

“I’m a woman so I’m going to make stories about women because I understand them, but I’m also a boy and I can’t stand the term ‘chick flick.’ That turns me off. I’m as turned off by that as any guy because I am a ‘dude.’ I have a very male mentality — the comedy in the film is not little girl comedy. It’s boy comedy, it’s androgynous comedy.” [Mirror]

Perhaps “dude” is code for Nu? Maybe instead of this kind of qualifier, we can just have better television and movies, more gasps of delight, more women who aren’t as much “attractive” or “shocking” as much as fucking brilliant.

Yours,

CF