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Bridesmaids: Corporate Feminism For the Masses

Posted by Jordan Tennenbaum on

In 2011, Bridesmaids, the Paul Feig directed and Judd Apatow produced film became an instant box office hit, reaching millions of viewers with a refreshing take on female comedy that received wide claim as a film that empowered women. Classically, Hollywood has been dominated and colonized by white males, producing and recycling narratives that reflect a small sliver of the American experience for a massive and diverse audience. Despite this fact, the film, written by Kristen Wiig, and starring Melissa McCarthy in her breakout role, breaks down some of the common gender barriers in film, allowing the audience to experience something very refreshing. Bridesmaids, for the first time in Hollywood’s history, has relinquished the stage to a cast of truly funny women, proving that those with two X chromosomes can be just as funny as men. On the other hand, this film blatantly and unabashedly excludes some from the narrative, though not in an explicitly negative way. In the construction of such a complex, white, female-driven film, women are for the first time given full representation and agency as comedians, yet this is done so in a reductive way that desexualizes funny females, utilizes lowball humor, and excludes those in lower socioeconomic, sexual, and racial classes.

bridesmaids

When Bridesmaids was released in 2011, it was hailed for being a “breakthrough in feminism” that was “written by women, in which women dominate the action and men are pushed to the margins” (Cox). It is important to note that the film was made at the initial peak of the time in which feminism, according to Beusman, became trendy. While she states that “on the most surface level, it must be noted that increased awareness is a good thing,” it is important to recognize that “interest in the movement might be shallow and disingenuous,” pointing to the fact that there could be ulterior, economic-based reasons for creating the film. Though it is directed and produced by men, Bridesmaids, according to director Feig, was made to share “a very sweet story about female friendship” for “a previously neglected audience- female comedic viewers- and [synthesized] an assemblage of hilarious actresses with a well-known Hollywood production team in order to not only simply tell a funny story, but to create a new subgenre” (Buckley). This means that despite its male influence and production, this film was produced for the female audience, seemingly as a move to better represent females in the industry, but the industry in question is Hollywood, and Hollywood wants to make money.

Upon closer examination, Feig and Apatow are clearly exploiting an untouched target market, which is step one for any capitalist venture to make money. Due to this audience targeting, one may call into question the true motives of the director and producer of the film, considering they are they ones who put up the money and determine if the film will actually turn a profit. Though the motives of the producers of Bridesmaids are nearly impossible to discern, the fact of the matter is that the film does give narrative representation to women on a grand scale, and that is not to be ignored.

The film, revolving around a group of six eccentric women, chronicles their adventures as Kristen Wiig, playing Annie, becomes elected as the maid of honor for Lillian. Annie befriends Megan, the sister-in-law of the bride to be, played by McCarthy, as they collectively circumvent trial after tribulation on their road to becoming bridesmaids. In addition to a budding friendship, Annie faces challenges in dealing with the new maid on the block, Helen, while at the same time developing a relationship with a kindhearted cop named Nathan. As the film progresses, we slowly see Annie begin to lose her mind in a hysterical fashion, beginning with a poor restaurant choice, followed by a sedative-fueled bachelorette trip, and culminating in a mental breakdown in which Annie treats a massive cookie like Rocky does a slab of meat. While trying to maintain her relationship with the bride, Annie sets aside her differences with Helen in order to provide a memorable wedding, eventually riding off into the night with Nathan in typical Hollywood fashion.

On the surface level, this film is truly a breakthrough in terms of representation of women in the media. According to Buckley, “because the attention gained from Bridesmaids has stemmed from its unique portrayal of females in comedy and because the genre of comedy is generally reserved for men, the very nature of this film is a violation of patriarchal norms and the present hegemony,” making it very important for the medium. Also, the film was written by women, and “serves to empower women because it gives women a voice” (Buckley). In addition, critics note, “this time it's Lillian, not her groom, who fears that marriage will rob her of her mates. It's Annie who has a problem with commitment, and not her swain. The bridesmaids have hopes, fears, longings, jealousies, rivalries and vulnerabilities that any woman might harbor. Yet in this film, these things don't seem all that exclusively female” (Cox). For the first time on the big screen, the audience is presented with an entirely female cast against imposed social norms that focuses on “competitiveness not bitchiness, despair not weepiness, charm rather than cuteness and anxiety rather than hysteria” (Cox), challenging the audience’s conception of acceptability, and giving seemingly fair representation to women.

In theory, this works, because it is not very often that women are given such agency, responsibility, and credibility in a production film. The women are presented as truly funny, emotionally complex, and genuine humans who struggle to deal with relationships and change through humor. In this sense, Bridesmaids is a very successful film, because depicts some aspects of life that are geared towards representing femininity in a humorous light. While it is incredibly important to recognize this accomplishment in challenging the patriarchy of Hollywood, it must be taken with a grain of salt and viewed from a wider perspective in order to examine some of the underlying and inherent gender representation and narrative-related problems with Bridesmaids.

According to Heather Savingy, “2013 was heralded as “The Year of Women at the Box Office,” “yet those of us with slightly longer memories might recall 2012 crowned as the year that ‘Hollywood Women Unite,’ or 2011, as the vanguard in the ‘new feminist revolution in Hollywood comedy,’” all of which “promised greater visibility and opportunities for female practitioners.” While Savingy’s ironic sarcasm serves to illuminate recycled false promises, as discussed it does ring partially true. Despite the fact that the motives behind Bridesmaids are unclear, this film puts forth a valiant effort to fairly represent women, though falls short representationally in creating recycled narratives in which humorous females are desexualized, use lowball humor, and exclude those in other socioeconomic classes.

One of the key problems with the way Bridesmaids represents woman is the fact that it desexualizes women who are funny, specifically Melissa McCarthy. Despite the fact that Annie, played by Wiig, is portrayed as sexually awkward, for the most part, she fits the stereotypical Hollywood mold of a thin, pretty, white women, who happens to have a great sense of humor. On the other hand, Melissa McCarthy plays a large, overweight, aggressive, and seemingly nonsexual character, exemplifying how the desexualization of women is employed for humorous purposes, and for humorous purposes, women must be desexualized. In one scene where McCarthy’s character hits on her real life husband, acting as an air marshal while on a plane, and aggressive demeanor and sexual overtones demonstrate “that women are not that different than men; they can be just as vulgar and sexual, and they can overdrink and be equally as raunchy… Megan’s stint in the flight scene demonstrates this notion of the female assuming typical male orientations toward sexual behavior…. rejecting the patriarchal norm that women are sexually submissive” (Buckley).

While scenes like this seem to empower women sexually, they can also perpetuate patriarchal systems. In reality, scenes like this are funny because they are unexpected, not specifically because a woman is sexually aggressive, but because Melissa McCarthy is a desexualized, sexually aggressive woman. The fact that McCarthy is deemed unattractive by society translates to an audience that denies her the ability to be sexual and have sexual desires. When Megan displays those desires, the audience faces cognitive dissonance, laughing at the fact that an unattractive woman could experience sexual feelings too. According to Innes, “toughness in women [is] repeatedly toned down by emphasizing the connection between women, sexuality, and femininity,” yet when sexuality is toned down, and toughness toned up, the audience is forced to laugh at such a seemingly odd situation (Innes).

This is a problematic catch twenty-two, because it either strips unattractive women of their credibility as sexual creatures due to their looks, or strips attractive women of their credibility as comedians due to their good looks, which means that “in order to be humorous and successful, females must assume all conditions of masculinity” (Buckley). In order for a film to properly represent women, it must not dichotomize sexuality and humor, because they are not mutually exclusive for women or men, and combat the belief that masculine women are people to be laughed at.

The second reason that this film is a poor representation of the female narrative is because of the constant utilization of lowball humor. While this movie has been hailed as one that has ushered in a new era of agency for raunchy female stars, in reality, agency isn’t necessarily the greatest excuse to employ feminism, and it serves to detract from the empowering agenda. Bridesmaids did give women the freedom to be as raunchy as they want, though to what avail? At first glance, this may seem empowering, as it shows that women can pull off humor in the same way that a male cast could, and encourages viewers to get in touch with their true selves, no matter their gender or identity.

Upon closer inspection, being raunchy isn’t inherently feminist, and while it is a humorous display for the audience, it actually serves to undercut the talent of the film. Wiig, McCarthy, and the rest of the cast are incredibly talented and funny individuals, who have consistently caused many to laugh in their other works. With that being said, many viewers know that these women are funny and do not need to stoop to vomit, fart, and vagina jokes. While no doubt that their humor is funny, displays agency, and is perfectly acceptable, if not funnier, for women to say, lowball jokes are nothing to take pride in no matter the gender of the comedian. Lowball humor, consisting of recycled jokes that fifth graders think are funny, is reserved for those who aren’t funny, because it is reliable, safe, and lazy. In utilizing such humor, Bridesmaids undercut the talent of the comedians onscreen, holding them back from their full potential, and forcing the audience to view them as crude, rather than humorous or witty.

The final reason that Bridesmaids doesn’t provide the audience with an accurate representation of women is because it focuses on upper-middle class, heterosexual, white women engaging in traditional marriage institutions. First, it is important to note that not all casts need to sound like the set up to a SAT math problem, featuring Muhammad, Juan, Brittany, Jamal, Ling, and Vladimir. Films are reflections of the writers and directors, who in Hollywood are frequently white, and therefore end up being about white people and white things. Not all films need to represent every race, sexuality, color, religion, or creed. With that being said, I believe it is more important for there to be an influx of diversity in Hollywood in regards to writers and directors, rather than harping on white writers and directors for producing films that don’t represent diverse narratives. It would be strange to expect an Asian director to create films about the Latino experience, just as it would be for men to describe the female experience, or a straight woman to describe the gay male experience. As a female written, empowering film, directed by a man who considers himself a feminist, one would expect the film to strive for a bit more equality in representation, but because it focuses strictly on wealthy, heterosexual, white women, it falls short in that regard.

First, employing a wealthy, heterosexual, and white cast of characters immediately excludes those who are not straight, wealthy, or white. While it is impossible to represent and include everyone, this movie clearly makes no effort to include lower economic classes. While Annie is broke, she has her mother to fall back on, and never seems to struggle with paying for food or gas. On the other hand, none of the other lead characters struggle economically, brushing off expensive dresses and trips to Vegas like one would brush the dirt off of their shoulder. In doing this, the film nearly dismisses economic standing, making it seem to not exist. Second, the lack of any people of color is clearly a misrepresentation of America. That being said, this film is a comedy, and isn’t exactly interested in solving social issues, yet could have been more inclusive and representative in terms of casting and thoughtfulness. Third, the film focuses solely on heterosexual marriage, norms, problems, and situations, which is to be expected in an American marriage movie. Making a straight wedding film that fairly represents gay marriage is incredibly challenging because the film inherently serves to reinforce heterosexual systems of power.

Because of this, it is hard to offer constructive criticism, yet as collective and conscious consumers, we should be aware of these enforced stereotypes, and demand that movies include better representation in the future. By excluding people of color, homosexuals, and those in middle to lower economic classes, the film sends the wrong message to future generations regarding who should be in the spotlight, and why they are in the spotlight. As a film that had an opportunity to fly its true feminist wings by including a diverse female cast, Bridesmaids fell short in providing the audience with a truly egalitarian narrative representation, and should not be considered the beacon of equality that feminism strives to achieve.

Bridesmaids was nothing short of an economically successful and hilarious film that entertained audiences from all over the country. For the 21st century, the film was groundbreaking; it featured a star-studded female cast, truly funny humor that broke social constructs, and a new attitude towards women in comedy. The film is regarded as one of female empowerment, one that inspires young women, and proves to them that they can be themselves, and be funny, no matter what. While the film is an incredibly important feminist and cinematic step towards equality, in reality the film does not fulfill many basic aspects of representation and equality, presenting the viewer with a watered-down, easily digestible, and seemingly corporate version of feminism. The film utilizes crude humor to undercut the talent of true comedians, desexualizes women for the sake of humor, and excludes gays, people of color, and people of a lower socioeconomic status. In denying basic, or at least minimal representation, to these three marginalized groups, the film is unable to push forward a truly egalitarian agenda and helps to reinforce cultural stereotypes. In order for movies in the future to better represent a wide variety of narratives, we must rely upon and value the stories and experiences from all different types of people, and make a conscious effort to weave them into the fabric Hollywood’s cinematic quilt.

Sources

  1. Beusman, Callie. 'What Does It Mean For Feminism If Feminism Becomes Trendy?'. Print.
  2. Buckley, Blair. '“Bridesmaids”: A Modern Response To Patriarchy'. Cal Poly Digital Commons. N.p., 2013. Web. 27 July 2015.
  3. Cox, David. 'Bridesmaids Buries Hollywood's Fear Of Feminism'. The Guardian. N.p., 2011. Web. 27 July 2015.
  4. Fritz, Ben. 'Melissa Mccarthy Is Hollywood's Unlikely Leading Lady'. Wall Street Journal. N.p., 2014. Web. 27 July 2015.
  5. Inness, Sherrie A. Tough Girls. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999. Print.
  6. Savingy, Heather. ''Where Do You Go After Bridesmaids?': The Politics Of Being A Woman In Hollywood'. Google Books. N.p., 2015. Web. 27 July 2015.

 

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