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Bridesmaids has taken on a special cultural significance since its release in 2011. Hailed as “terrifically funny, smart and tender”, the film, under Paul Feig’s directing and Judd Apatow’s producing, remains a frank display of women behaving badly. Yet it is precisely this ‘behaving badly’ that remains a sticky topic.
Though the film has remained a critical favourite, one key scene has stuck in the cultural imagination – the women spilling their guts all over a pristine bridal boutique floor. Personally, this scene stands out for me but only because I’m torn over its inclusion. Critics almost unanimously viewed the food poisoning scene as marking a new space for women in male territory - an overt manifestation of overthrowing the old boys club. The scene deviates from the traditional expectations of female behaviour (I’m thinking of the old ‘women don’t shit’ adage), but the scene was actually never meant to be there. It was put in at the request of Apatow, Feig, and studio executives to “appeal to male viewers” – turns out that underneath the layer of vomit lies a gendered struggle for cultural authority. The scene is forcefully inserted to satiate reluctant and sceptical male viewers, raising questions of when and where women are allowed to be funny, and what sacrifices they have to make to their integrity to be accepted by a masculine audience. Wiig revealed in a recent podcast, “it’s always going to be the scene that wasn’t in the original that was added for other reasons.” It’s frustrating then that this is the scene that sticks in people’s minds. As one critic notes, “there is another movie struggling to be born here”. Despite its subversive potential, giving way to generic male conventions that are characteristic of other films in Apatow’s oeuvre means that the physically explosive moments overshadow one of the most emotionally perceptive studies of friendship, class envy, and midlife crisis afforded to women in Hollywood.
This is not to say that the movie has not had positive repercussions for women in film. The movie seems to have carved a space for women in a genre dominated almost entirely by men. Whether or not Bridesmaids was as effective as projected, the movie made $288 million worldwide and has done important cultural work. The scene – although I feel that it is gratuitous – is a defilement usually reserved for men. The film seems to take the ‘gross out’ aspect of the bromance and claim it for women. Despite being forced to create the scene, the actresses do it better than men because it is unexpected. The film uses its straddling of genres to its advantage by subverting expectations of the chick flick, yet indulging in the gross out comedy of the formulaic ‘homme-com’. Perhaps we could call this a ‘sick flick’ instead.
Another key example of this genre is when Rita, a mother of three boys, shares that everything in her home is “covered in semen. Once I cracked a blanket in half”. In these instances, we find ourselves laughing at the male bodily fluids, but not in an affectionate, naturalised way. Instead, it’s in a way that positions men in the self-consciousness and embarrassment that is often reserved for women and their bodily excretions (perhaps most comparable to the period blood stain scene in Apatow’s Superbad). It feels like Apatow waltzes into the writer’s room shouting various bodily fluids intermittently, “Period blood! Semen! Vomit! Shit!”, and then leaves again. He knows what men want, and in his defence, his formulas often work.
I would have liked to see a film that uses the verbal quips generated by the quality of the ensemble, to build and gain momentum in waves, rather than relying on the ‘explosive money shot’ of the food poisoning scene demanded by male studio executives. Perhaps this is the sacrifice that has to be made to take the first steps into phallocentric territory – to mimic that language and change one variable at a time. The viewer has been trained to consume these masculinist narratives and, if they have seen any of Apatow’s films before, as soon as they see that pristine, white carpet they will expect some kind of defiling. However, women now do the defiling: spilling their guts onto a symbol of the institution of marriage.
The film further subverts the ‘homme-com’. Usually, we are trained to mourn the loss of the male bachelor lifestyle, as in The Hangover, and to associate the wedding with female gain. Comparatively, Bridesmaids investigates what is lost for women and makes no allowance for male loss – the groom has no other lines than “I do”, and the men become beside the point. The film is not just ‘The Hangover with boobs’. The centralising principle and sustaining force is female friendship – volatile, tender and rewarding, more so than mere heterosexual romance. Annie and Lillian’s friendship, whilst confirming some conservative Hollywood clichés, remains the central principle despite their separate romances. Thus, the film explores what is lost for women, both in the universe of the film and outside of it through the sacrifices that are expected. Therefore, I admire the sacrifice that writers Wiig and Mumolo make in order to market to the mainstream. Nevertheless, I have more hope for their upcoming film next year without Apatow attached.
Wiig and Mumulo create a screenplay that is neither a mocking satire of matrimony, nor a redemption story ending in female submission (Chris O’Dowd indeed picks Wiig up at the end of the wedding, but only after she has mended her friendships). Bridesmaids subverts its genre expectations without contributing to the social insistence that we despise the chick flick or romantic comedy. It is not embarrassed by its genre and outperforms its conventions.
Many look at the film as a feminist breakthrough, others as a regressive cultural product, but why can’t it be looked at as both? It’s a two steps forward, one step back product that does important cultural work, but also only tells a certain story – a white, heterosexual, able-bodied one. Bridesmaids may not be shattering the glass ceiling, but perhaps shitting on the boutique floor is a step in the right direction.
Featured Image Source: Megan Shepherd