Plot Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Present Day. Single Annie has been working at a jewellery store since her bakery business failed. She is sleeping with the uncommitted Ted. When her friend Lillian becomes engaged, Annie is asked to be maid of honour. At the engagement party, Annie forms an immediate rivalry with Helen, wife of Lillian’s fiancé’s boss. Driving home, Annie is stopped by Officer Rhodes, who tells her to get her taillight fixed. Annie arranges a lunch for the bridal party, which leaves everyone except Helen suffering from food poisoning during a dress fitting. Boarding a plane to Las Vegas for the bachelorette party, Helen gives nervous flyer Annie a pill; Annie’s subsequent disruptive behaviour causes the flight to be grounded. Annie is demoted – Helen is asked to organise the bridal shower and the wedding instead. Annie loses her job. She goes for a drink with Officer Rhodes and sleeps with him, but rejects him when he is kind to her. When Helen throws an elaborate bridal shower, Annie causes a scene and angers Lillian, who wants nothing more to do with her. Annie crashes her car, and Rhodes helps out; Ted comes to collect Annie but she gets out of his car when he demands oral sex. On the wedding day, Helen asks Annie to find the missing Lillian; a reluctant Rhodes assists. Annie talks Lillian through her nerves and the two reconcile. The wedding is a success, and Rhodes is waiting for Annie afterwards (adapted from Smith 58).
Film Note Bridesmaids was produced by Universal Pictures in association with Relativity Media and Apatow Productions. Grossing $288.4m worldwide, the film is the most financially successful production released by Judd Apatow’s company. An R Rated comedy, it is groundbreaking in its depiction of women performing gross-out comedy. However, this liberal representation of women is somewhat undermined by the film’s adherence to certain conventions of the romantic comedy genre. The romantic comedy has been identified as conservative by feminist scholars, with “the union of the heterosexual couple generally underwriting and reaffirming a patriarchal status quo” (Kuhn and Westwell 355). This differs from the chick flick, a later development of the genre focusing on female protagonists and aimed at a female audience. Unlike its antecedent, the chick flick is not confined to the central narrative motivation of a heterosexual relationship or romance (Kuhn and Westwell 70). Bridesmaids can be placed into both romantic comedy and chick flick categories since it features a central heterosexual relationship but is also preoccupied with female themes and friendships.
The romantic comedy and the homme-com The 1970s was a time of radical change for the romantic comedy. Correlating with the Second Wave Feminism prevalent during the decade, films such as Annie Hall (1977), The Goodbye Girl (1977) and An Unmarried Woman (1978) depict women asserting themselves as sexual beings and fulfilling their own desires. The late 1980s witnessed the genre revert back to the gender dynamic typical of the films of the 1950s, in which “men wanted sex and women were exhorted to withhold it from them” (McDonald 150). The importance of sex for women – a theme which had been so significant throughout the romantic comedies of the 1970s – was de-emphasised, and remains so today.
Despite the insistence of director Paul Feig that Bridesmaids is not a chick flick but a female ensemble comedy, the film is loyal to the genre in terms of its depiction of women’s attitudes towards intercourse. The film opens with a sex scene between Annie and Ted. However, Annie seems to gain little pleasure from the experience as her desires are disregarded in favour of satisfying her sexual partner. The close up shots of their faces emphasise the contrasting experiences of the characters whilst also creating a sense of awkwardness by placing the viewer inside the action. Annie’s friend Lilian later reprimands her, extracting an apology from the ashamed protagonist and therefore reinforcing the dissatisfaction and indignity brought about by the experience. This sexual relationship is presented as one of the defining aspects of Annie’s “rock bottom” status and thus detrimental to her happiness. In contrast to this, her relationship with Officer Rhodes proves far more beneficial and durable. Rhodes fills an almost parental role, being both disciplinary and nurturing in the way that he pushes Annie to “get those tail lights fixed” and encourages her return to her profession by providing her with baking materials. This relationship is not defined by sex; on the contrary, the film cuts away from their sex-scene before either character removes any clothes. Through the comparison of these two central heterosexual relationships, it is easy to conclude that Bridesmaids corresponds with McDonald’s assertion that within the contemporary romantic comedy, “love and stability are associated with not having sex” (151).
However, the film’s opening sequence is arguably progressive in the way that it provides a frank and unsentimental perspective on the pleasures of sex that recalls “the realism prevalent in the radical romantic comedies of the 1970s” (McDonald 159). This separation of love and sex encourages a reading of the film as a liberal text due to its acknowledgement and depiction of pre-marital intercourse. However, as McDonald concludes, if the romantic comedy continues only to illustrate male urges then “this new turn within the genre offers no more validation of women’s rights to sexual desire” than the Ephronesque comedies of the 1990s (159). The refusal to depict Annie desiring or attaining sexual pleasure renders Bridesmaids conservative in its under-representation of the female libido, and thus also congruent with the conventions of the dominant form of the genre. As The London Evening Standard observes, due to its refusal to grant its women fulfilling sexual pleasures, Bridesmaids is “not so revolutionary, not such a feminist break out, after all” (Sexton, 2011).
The late 1990s witnessed the beginning of a new sub-genre of romantic comedy, which combines the narrative convention of a monogamous relationship with moments of gross-out comedy. McDonald traces the “homme-com” back to 1996 and the release of Swingers (1996), a film following the narrative structure of a romantic comedy but with a predominantly male cast. Also referred to as the “bromance”, this sub-genre centres around a “close nonsexual relationship between men” (Kuhn and Westwell 50). It began to incorporate gross-out comedy with Hollywood Lowbrow films such as American Pie (1999), Along Came Polly (2004) and The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005), all featuring scenes of bodily humour in the hope of appealing to a younger, male audience. McDonald observes that these films aim to appeal to men through their emphasis on the body. In assuming sex to be a predominantly male interest, the sub-genre conforms to the presumptions of the typical romantic comedy (McDonald 158). Largely considered a pioneer of the homme-com, Judd Apatow’s films typically revolve around an immature male who is encouraged to abandon his juvenile antics in pursuit of a monogamous relationship. By contrast, and despite being produced by Apatow, Bridesmaids was praised upon its release for its outrageous depiction of women performing “farce based on scatological and sexual irruptions” (Bonila 18).
Yet despite these perceptions of the film’s groundbreaking comedic elements, Bridesmaids is often criticised for being a female imitation of the homme-com, thus simply recycling the comedic devices of the established male-dominated sub-genre. Following its release, it was frequently compared to The Hangover (2009), a film epitomising the homme-com sub-genre. The comparison is primarily due to the narrative focus upon pre-wedding conventions and use of gross-out comedy but is also a result of the close release dates of The Hangover Part 2 (2011) and Bridesmaids. Both Bridesmaids’ Lilian and The Hangover’s Doug seem to lack control; Doug is absent from the majority of the plot after being abandoned on a roof by his groomsmen, and Lilian seems to wander from party to party with little agency. Both characters must also bear the aggravation of a misfit in-law, who is loud, eccentric, oblivious to social etiquette and acts as a principal source and participant of the gross-out comedy. Due to such similarities, it is difficult to deny that Bridesmaids mimics the established conventions of the homme-com sub-genre. Although these conventions are enacted by women, the gender of the performer is arguably the only aspect of the film that strays from the tried and tested formula of the sub-genre. This is evident from the finale of Bridesmaids which, just as in The Hangover, focuses upon the wedding ceremony. The nuptial union is brought to the foreground, reminding the audience of its importance within the narrative whilst also sustaining the conservative ideals perpetuated by the romantic comedy and the homme-com.
Scatological eruptions Throughout his career, Judd Apatow has been accused of sexism. In a candid interview with Vanity Fair, Katherine Heigl, star of Knocked Up (2007), criticised that film for the way in which it “paints the women as shrews, as humorless and uptight, and it paints the men as lovable, goofy, fun-loving guys” (qtd in Bennetts). Defending himself in an interview with Jezebel, Apatow insisted that his films try to “weigh it evenly so it’s not really about men or women; it’s just about miscommunications and us at our worst” (qtd in North). The New York Times observes that heavily conservative morals are characteristic of Apatow’s work: a virgin waiting for “the one”; a man trying to grow-up in response to an unplanned-pregnancy; a husband trying to provide for his family (Rodrick). It is therefore possible to infer that Apatow is not exactly sexist, but upholds a conservative perspective on marriage and gender roles.
Bridesmaids delivers female characters who reject the sensible, reliable stereotype of the woman that is typical of Apatow’s directorial work. Annie Walker is introduced as having hit “rock-bottom”, largely due to her lack of boyfriend or husband. This is illustrated at Lilian’s engagement party: as she is introduced to each member of the bridal party, it is repeatedly assumed that the male stranger standing next to her is her husband. When corrected, Becca, a naive newlywed, exclaims “You don’t have a husband!”, before quickly apologising. Shocked and confused by Annie’s single status, Becca’s response reveals a great deal about contemporary attitudes concerning marriage. As Peter Bradshaw remarks in his review: “to be a bridesmaid is to be a failure: that seems to be the awful truth.”
Annie is a representative of the millennial generation, a demographic dubbed the “Me Me Me Generation” by Time in 2013 (Stein). Criticised by the press, this generation lacks the motivation to leave home and become established in the working world (Berke). As a result of the 2008 financial crisis unemployment rates increased and, as enacted by Annie in the film, young adults began to return to the family home (Fry). After witnessing the high divorce rates of their parents, these millennials display a tendency to “postpone adulthood” in their deferment of marriage and family (Yen). Becca’s incredulous response to Annie’s single status can be read as an illustration of the societal anxiety generated by the trend toward delayed marriage and the uncertain consequences it may have for US society. However, the final sequence of the film attempts to alleviate these fears in the reconciliation of Annie and Officer Rhodes. Although she doesn’t regain her house or her business, the film conveys optimism for Annie’s future as a result of her relationship. Therefore, Bridesmaids encourages a re-investment of confidence in the conventional social structure of marriage, a moral that is coherent with the conservative ideology of Apatow’s work.
However, this conservative reading of the film is complicated by the aims and practices of director Paul Feig, who has spoken out against the under-representation of women in comedy. When promoting Bridesmaids, Feig expressed his enthusiasm for creating a platform for women to display their comedic talent instead of being relegated to supporting roles. In preparation for the film, Feig watched chick flicks and romantic comedies in order to identify traits he wanted to avoid, and consequently the film contains moments that subvert the conventions of the genre, in particular those around female-led gross-out comedy.
The scene in the bridal store is the climax of the film’s gross-out comedy. After contracting food poisoning, the bridal party causes chaos in an upmarket boutique, vomiting and defecating all over the lavish, white decor. Not only is this sequence groundbreaking in that it depicts women performing such grotesque acts, but it also acts as a rebellion against traditional tropes of the genre. “Makeover flicks” such as Pretty Woman (1990), 27 Dresses (2008) and Sex and the City (2008) feature shopping montages in which the female protagonist(s) try on various outfits. This sub-genre of the romantic comedy explores “consumer culture and identity” in relation to women on screen (Ferris 54). They pose for the supporting characters, sip champagne and admire their reflections in mirrors, usually to the sound of an upbeat pop track. This is starkly subverted in Bridesmaids, in which there is no non-diegetic music to distract from the bodily explosions graphically presented on screen. The women stain their expensive dresses, and Lilian relieves herself in the middle of the street. The New York Times observes that “too many studio bosses seem to think that a woman’s place is in a Vera Wang”, and here Lilian’s excrement in the dress can be interpreted as a blatant refusal to adhere to this stereotype, as she physically and symbolically defecates on this restrictive ideology (Dargis).
This sequence knowingly references the conventions of the genre and subverts expectations, whilst also proving that women can successfully perform the gross-out comedy previously enacted exclusively by men. Feig has exploited the positive critical and commercial response to the film in order to create more female ensemble films in the future. His subsequent film The Heat (2013) was a female buddy-cop movie which also proved commercially successful, and the director subsequently developed an all-female re-make of Ghostbusters (1984). Consequently, it is arguable that Bridesmaids is an important film when considering Hollywood representations of gender. Feig’s determination to provide a platform for female comediennes to display their talent as writers and performers displays an optimism toward the increasing presence of women in the Hollywood film industry.
“Not all chick-flicks have to suck” In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Feig expressed his frustration regarding the enduring myth that women cannot be funny, and asked why women were so rarely allowed to carry a film: “why is a movie starring women considered a gimmick and a movie starring men is just a normal movie?” (qtd in Zuckerman). However, when examining the marketing of Bridesmaids, it is clear that the film relies upon such assumptions as a key selling point. The lesser-used tagline used to sell the film, “not all chick flicks have to suck”, acknowledges a societal tendency to disregard chick flicks as superficial whilst also distancing the film from this stereotype. The theatrical poster embodies this. The bridal party, adorned in extravagant pink dresses, stand in front of a brick wall. Whilst their costumes connote the elegance traditionally associated with the wedding movie, their confrontational body language indicates that the film is not typical of the genre. The poster references the pink colour scheme of the poster for Sex and the City, in which the four female stars stand side by side, smiling. However, the positioning of the women against the harsh lines of the brick wall on the Bridesmaids poster appears more like a police line-up, reminiscent of the theatrical poster for The Usual Suspects (1995). This is an effective use of marketing in the way that it references a film that epitomises the genre whilst simultaneously indicating that it will not conform to convention.
Like most romantic comedy films, Bridesmaids was marketed at a female audience between the ages of sixteen and thirty-four. Social media played a significant role in its promotion and twitter support for the film increased significantly preceding its release. The progressive repercussions of the film’s representation of women was not lost on twitter users or critics, many of whom pronounced viewing the film a “social responsibility” (Traister). Melissa Silverstein described how the future of female-led comedy depended on the film’s success, while a mass email sent by producer Kristin Smith and writer Emily Bracken urged women to support Bridesmaids in order to illustrate to male Hollywood executives that “women DO want movies that are not vapid romcoms” (Traister). Lena Dunham, creator and star of the female-dominated television drama Girls (2012-ongoing), voiced her support on twitter, urging people to see the film in order to “Support women in the arts (& the men who love them)”.
This overwhelming endorsement of the film as a significant feminist text is symptomatic of fourth-wave feminism, a phenomenon largely fueled by the journalistic press and “defined by technology” (Cochrane). This recent brand of feminism uses the internet as a crucial tool for providing a platform for challenging sexism or misogyny (see Munro). The commercial success of Bridesmaids could thus be seen as a consequence of this newfound reliance on technology as an instrument of social change, combined with the desire of women in US society to see themselves represented more frequently in Hollywood cinema.
Bridesmaids thus offers a nuanced perspective on the future of women in Hollywood. From an industrial standpoint, the film is in many ways progressive. Groundbreaking in its portrayal of women performing gross-out comedy, the film provides a long sought-after platform for female comediennes to display their talent as writers and performers, paving the way for a series of female ensemble comedies. The widespread online support for the film, combined with its financial and critical success, is evidence of the desire for more women on screen. However, whilst this creates a feeling of optimism for the future of women in Hollywood, the film itself conforms to the patriarchal conventions of the romantic comedy and its sub-genres. Bridesmaids prohibits its protagonist from fulfilling her sexual desires, achieving entrepreneurial success or gaining financial independence. The narrative asserts optimism for her future purely as a result of her reconciliation and implied relationship with Officer Rhodes, and thus love and marriage remain “indissolubly linked” within the film and the genre (Deleyto and Evans 6).
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Written by Emily Eyre (2015), Queen Mary University of London
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