My parents kept three numbers on speed dial: my aunt’s house, my father’s office and the Video Room, the movie rental place on 80th Street and Third Avenue. The Video Room catalogue was thick as a phone book and it rested in the center of our kitchen table, a bowl of plastic lemons perched on top of it. The catalogue was updated each January, and over the course of the year, its delicate newsprint pages would grow translucent spots from all the greasy fingers paging through it. When I was really young, the catalogue was always flipped open to the “Musicals” chapter—my mother still doesn’t quite see the point of movies in which the main characters do not sing and dance. I was reared on Barbara Streisand—I’ve seen Funny Girl at least half a dozen times. When my older sister started to have an opinion, we watched more contemporary movies, like Working Girl, A League of Their Own and Goldie Hawn’s entire oeuvre. My father may have groaned at our movie selections, but he still chuckled in all the right places. After all, the women in these movies were funny. They were wittily funny, absurdly funny, darkly funny—sometimes all of the above.
So I was surprised this spring when, in response to the release of Bridesmaids, so many newspapers donned headlines like “Women can be funny, too” (or, for the more quizzical critics at Gawker, “Women can be funny too?”) and “The First Genuine ‘Female’ Comedy.” The tone of these articles was that of a war-torn country unable to recall what peace looked like. Had critics forgotten all about parts played by Geena Davis and Barbara Streisand?
Not so long ago, it seemed possible to make movies about complex, funny female characters that were also profitable. These lady-centric comedies often started with a fish-out-of-water type situation—women playing sports professionally, women in the corner office, women in the army—and played up the ironies of modern womanhood, like Madonna’s character in A League of Their Own tenderly teaching her illiterate teammate to read with a porn novel, or Goldie Hawn as the title character in Private Benjamin, a Jewish American princess turned army trainee who requests a private condo in place of a bunk. There were also films like Thelma & Louise and Wildcats; television added Murphy Brown, Designing Women and Dana Scully from X-Files. The female characters were working mothers, and sometimes even working-class; they were athletic and witty and read Gloria Steinem. The actresses were always pretty—stunning even—but never in a glossy or mechanized way. They had moles on their faces and oversized noses.
For those of us who grew up in the Nineties—and watched, perhaps, a bit too much television—these characters offered a more complex view of womanhood than our mothers ever could. Born in the Forties, my mom became a teacher because she didn’t want to be a secretary; her most persistent advice to my sister and me was to keep our nails clean. My friends’ mothers were either of the same ilk or just the opposite—adamant first-wavers who forbade lipstick and high heels and gave their children endlessly hyphenated names. These characters fell somewhere in between: they doted on their husbands and still managed to be the leading scorers in the all-women baseball leagues; they got the guys as well as the corner offices. They were even pleasant to be around. They were the fantasy.
But since the early Nineties, the “chick flick” has changed from a subgenre to an insult. female-centric comedies have largely been replaced by romantic comedies (which are always more romantic than they are comedic), and leading roles for comedic actresses have been replaced by a parade of stereotypes, like the Well-Intended Bubblehead, the Perfect Mother and the Nagging Wife. We’ve even seen the rise of a new stereotype: the Neurotic Overachiever—usually played by Katherine Heigl, or, when she’s busy, Rachel McAdams. She is a cold-hearted careerist, who earns laughs—or, more likely, pitying sighs—by overreacting to mildly troublesome circumstances. The Neurotic Overachiever is the anti-comedienne. She is distinctively unfunny; the main plot point is whether the Attractive Irresponsible Man can teach her to laugh. Most Neurotic Overachievers hang with similarly humorless female friends. All together, they make ladies’ nights seem like very whiny affairs.
Could it be, then, that last spring saw the return of the funny lady? While Bridesmaids tested whether modern audiences could accept an underemployed, credit-strapped woman (Kristen Wiig) as the everyman, Tina fey’s memoir Bossypants detailed the absurd balancing acts required of a mother-slash-middle-manager. The striking cover of Bossypants models the beautiful Fey—her brown eyes elegantly enhanced with a little mascara, her skin smooth, her hair salon-volumized—photoshopped with the burly arms of a middle-aged businessman, complete with stocky fingers, hairy forearms and a cheap men’s watch. These new comediennes certainly don’t behave like Goldie Hawn or Geena Davis. The women behind Bridesmaids and Bossypants may have reminded amnesiac critics that women can be funny too, but did they do so by pretending to be men?
The Bechdel Test, named after cartoonist Alison Bechdel, judges a movie’s respect for women by three criteria: (1) it has at least two women in it; (2) they talk to each other; and (3) their conversation concerns something other than a man. Movies from “Apatown,” as Judd Apatow’s clan of producers are known, don’t tend to score well. The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Hangover, Funny People, Hot Tub Time Machine and I Love You, Man all failed, for example. Oddly, recent romantic comedies packaged for women don’t fare well, either. The Proposal, He’s Just Not That Into You and What Women Want (the answer, apparently, is not “good conversation with other women”) didn’t do much better.
Given this context, it makes sense that Bridesmaids seemed like an historical event. After a decade of Neurotic Overachievers, Bridesmaids gave female moviegoers much to celebrate. The main character, Annie, played by Kristen Wiig (who also co-wrote the screenplay), is affable, low-key and realistically at- tractive. Annie’s best friend Lillian (played by Maya Rudolph) is likeable and sarcastic, not the cheeky comedic foil to her damsel-in-just-a-bit-of-distress. And bridesmaid Megan (played by Melissa McCarthy) is as gruff and encouraging as the high school football coach and as sentimental and boy-crazy as its head cheerleader. In a more typical romantic comedy, she would be typecast as the Can-Crushing Dyke. Not here. Dressed in a golf hat and a strand of pearls, she expresses dripping lecherousness toward every man she sees.
In the second scene of the movie, Annie and Lillian have a lewd conversation over brunch in a crowded urban diner; Annie pantomimes the penis she was involved with the night before. Already the film breaks from the extravagant fantasy worlds of most hollywood chick flicks, with their effortless work-life bal- ance, multiple orgasms and best of American design. Those movies are pleasantly escapist, but not especially reliable. This scene, by contrast, looks like a barely dramatized version of my average weekend. And although her wedding might be completely over-the-top—puppies are handed out as party favors, butterflies fly out of the bridal shower invitation—the movie is not about a bridezilla (which is refreshing, given the recent popularity of reality television shows featuring women in bell-shaped ensembles in terrible need of sedatives).
But Bridesmaids is no Gilmore Girls, the genuinely funny but definitively girly television series. (Although that’s where Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids’ breakout star, made her start.) The movie takes a plot-line straight out of the Apatow oeuvre and substitutes in female characters for male ones: Annie is an affable, broke slacker in her early-thirties whose life is on a downward slope and who spends most of her time with her girls. Bridesmaids, like all of Apatow’s movies, makes the case that comedy is a game best played on same-sex teams. The funny happens when you let girls hang with girls (and, in the case of all his other movies, boys hang with boys).
In one scene, Annie brings the whole bridal party to a seedy Brazilian restaurant before heading to their dress fittings at a posh shop in Chicago. As soon as they’re dressed in a clash of competing pastel dresses, they’re all hit with a violent case of food poisoning and deliriously careen to the bathroom, to the nearest trash can, wherever—Lillian dashes into the city street and squats, sinking into the giant white poof of her gown. Apatow himself added in the scene, insisting that the film needed a stronger hook for immature Male Audiences. Understandably, many critics were offended by the number of comedic curtsies to the bros in the theater—“a chick flick for men,” as Peter Canellos wrote in the Boston Globe, adding that “the true audience—the one whose views are best expressed on the screen—is men.”
Yet perhaps there is something inadvertently liberating about this unladylike lewdness. In an industry where, as Tina Fey has said, “the definition of crazy … is a woman who keeps talking even after no one wants to fuck her anymore,” it is almost radical that these women are permitted to be quite so repulsive. At any rate, there was much to be gained financially from the added Apatow-isms. Bridesmaids was produced for a mere $30 million and earned more than $200 million at the box office. There’s no message of female empowerment of the kind we’ve come to expect from all-women ensemble comedies, like Nine to Five or The First Wives Club (unless you consider public recognition that women do, indeed, shit to be somehow empowering). But this is, of course, Hollywood, not the Girl Scouts. female empowerment is not the goal, even if it seemed that way in the Nineties.
While Bridesmaids closely calibrated its gender factor—some wedding satire, but not too much wedding satire—Tina Fey’s Bossypants doesn’t censor its feminine side; any sixteen-year-old boy who picks up the book will read about the dissonance of watching Entourage while breast-feeding. On her Emmy-winning television show 30 Rock, Fey’s sense of humor is a combination of the wit of Frances Leibowitz, the self-effacing sarcasm of Albert Brooks and a touch of physical humor, developed from years of improv and sketch comedy. She’s less wacky than Amy Poehler, but more so than Ellen DeGeneres; she’s political, but sparingly so. It’s a combination that’s garnered her a mixed-sex fan base, appearing on the cover of men’s and women’s magazines with equal frequency.
Yet in her memoir, Bossypants, released last spring, Fey makes a surprising number of winks and asides to her female readers. There are her adventures with breast-feeding—the “Williams-Sonoma Tit Juicer” (a breast pump) and the “Teat Nazis” (an “upper-middle-class phenomenon occurring when highly ambitious women experience deprivation from outside modes of achievement” and, in turn, become intensely proud of their ability to lactate). There’s the time that Fey, a lifelong glasses-wearer, is required to use contacts to play Sarah Palin in a Saturday night Live skit and describes the experience of touching her eyeballs for the first time: “If you’ve never had to do it, I’d say it’s not quite as quease making as when you lose your tampon string, but equally queasish to a self-breast exam. If you are male, I would liken it to touching your own eyeball, and thank you for buying this book.”
In Christopher Hitchens’ Vanity Fair essay “Why Women Aren’t Funny” he writes, “Is there anything so utterly lacking in humor as a mother discussing her new child?” He’s being polemical, but he’s got a point: women’s experiences are often considered too sentimental, too sacred to make light of; even women’s anatomy is less funny than men’s. (When’s the last time you’ve heard kids make a game of screaming “vagina” at the top of their lungs?) But Fey makes early motherhood funny, not just reminiscent-sighs-over-tea funny (“Jimmy was bottle-fed, too!”), but loudly-guffawing-in-public funny. In Bossypants, she shares “The Mother’s Prayer for Its Daughter”:
O Lord, break the Internet forever, That she may be spared the misspelled invective of her peers And the online marketing campaign for Rape Hostel V: Girls Just Wanna Get Stabbed. …
And should she choose to be a Mother one day, be my eyes, Lord, that I may see her, lying on a blanket on the floor at 4:50 A.M., all-at-once exhausted, bored, and in love with the little creature whose poop is leaking up its back.
It’s hard to imagine Goldie Hawn, or even her more neurotic counterpart, Shelley Long, reciting this in monologue. Twenty years ago, of course, Long made motherhood funny in Troop Beverly Hills, but she could never countenance the awkwardness, self-deprecation and off-kilter perceptiveness of Bossypants— or even the ordinariness of Bridesmaids’ Wiig. Yesteryear’s ladies of comedy were always exceedingly graceful; film plots followed the incongruity of their feminine grace with traditionally male environments, and resolutions involved proving to themselves and to the men around them that one could be a woman and still be the best soldier or ballplayer or businessperson. Perhaps what fey shows us is that today women can be women just as men get to be men—poorly, that is, occasionally failing and with recurrent feelings of ill-preparedness. The new fantasy is not about keeping one’s cool while working, but about being able to sometimes stumble, just like the boys do.