What’s bad about women behaving badly in film?

What’s bad about women behaving badly in film?

The summer’s still young, but I’d lay odds that no elaborately choreographed action spectacle this year will provide me with anything like the hit of pure pleasure I got from watching Cameron Diaz shove a corn dog into the mouth of a mustard bottle in Bad Teacher. Taken as a whole, the movie is appallingly sloppy, leaving discarded subplots hanging like the fringe on worn cutoffs, and its attempts at off-color humor are woefully inept. But while Bad Teacher’s fart jokes wouldn’t shock a five-year-old, there’s something genuinely transgressive about the sheer slovenliness of Diaz’s character, the extent to which she’s willing to lay waste to her movie-star image. As she chomped down on that corn dog, pushing a half-chewed bite to the front of her mouth before swallowing it down, I felt a little thrilled, as if I’d been witness to some rare astrophysical event.

But depending on whom you ask, Bad Teacher has problems, and they’re bigger than simple plot inconsistency. In a blog post titled “You Want Raunchy Comedy Starring Women? Be Careful What You Wish For,” L.A. Weekly Film Editor Karina Longworth argued that that Bad Teacher is a movie in which “a ‘strong woman’ means a lazy, lying, scheming, slutty, and obstinately materialistic one… whose delusions are essentially validated by narrative resolution.” In other words, Bad Teacher is bad for women.

I don’t agree with Longworth’s reading of Bad Teacher—for one thing, I don’t see any way in which her character is presented as a “strong woman,” and for another, I don’t think the film’s conclusion validates her delusion. Diaz’s endless string of deception and manipulations does bring down her main rival, a goody-two-shoes colleague played by Lucy Punch, but Diaz’s strategy is enabled by the fact that, underneath Punch’s chirpy exterior, her character is just as vain and deluded as Diaz’s. And while seeking a millionaire, Diaz gets involved with Jason Segel, a cheerily cynical kindred-spirit gym teacher who shares both her outlook and her relative poverty.

But rather than defend Bad Teacher—since I agree with Longworth’s underlying point that, political ramifications aside, it isn’t a particularly good movie—it’s worth asking why the larger question even comes up. The success of movies like Old School and The Hangover have spawned their share of “Guys are back!” think-pieces, and Judd Apatow’s blend of edgy humor and outright sentiment certainly sent ripples through the movie industry, since nothing makes Hollywood sit up and take notice like a movie that costs little and makes a ton of money. But in neither case was there much hand-wringing over whether their success or potential failure might advance or retard the progress of movies aimed at a primarily male audience.

Bad Teacher, by contrast, is just the latest movie to get caught up in an ongoing debate about expanding the boundaries of the traditional female-centered romantic comedy. The success of Bridesmaids, which as Longworth points out, has raked in more at the box office than any Apatow-related project since Knocked Up, seems to vindicate the theory that there’s an audience—or, if you like, a market—for movies in which women discuss their feelings between bouts of explosive diarrhea and drug-induced hysteria. (It’s worth noting, though, that the now-infamous sequence in which two woman disgorge the remnants of an unsavory Brazilian lunch in the bathroom of an upscale bridal shop involves two characters, played by Melissa McCarthy and Wendy McLendon-Covey, who serve mainly as comic relief. Maya Rudolph’s character shits in the street, but she does it unseen, beneath a wedding dress.)

But Bridesmaids has run into trouble, too. In a post at indieWIRE, Lisa Rosman took the film to task for pasting “standard poop-n-puke frat gags” over a “Cathy comic plot.” But regardless of its qualities—and I’d submit there’s nothing “standard” about a movie in which two women mock the goofy appearance of male genitalia—Bridesmaids is indisputably a more complicated animal than Bad Teacher, a black-comic broadside in which everyone—man, woman, and seventh-grade student—is revealed to be some kind of a freak, jerk, or weirdo.

It’s true that Diaz’s character in Bad Teacher embodies some of the worst misogynist stereotypes: She’s a vain, manipulative gold-digger who uses her killer body and forked tongue to bend men to her will, and regards other people only as obstacles between her and the nearest sugar daddy. But she’s also a drunk, a slob, and a slacker, characteristics that don’t speak well of her, but do set her apart from the stereotypical dragon lady. 

Diaz is a beautiful woman; one of the surest gauges of her Bad Teacher character’s madness is her conviction that the only way for her to snare a wealthy mate is to procure a giant pair of fake breasts. (So we don’t miss the joke, the movie throws in a gratuitous scene of Diaz manhandling a sample pair attached to an alarmingly tan woman.) But her career has been distinguished by a willingness to get her hands dirty, to use her physical attractiveness as the premise for a joke rather than a mere object for the camera’s gaze. She shares with her Charlie’s Angels co-star Drew Barrymore a willingness to beat herself up onscreen, and not in the Oscar-grubbing manner of Hilary Swank or Halle Berry. The way Barrymore’s roller-derby brute grins through the blood streaming down her face in Whip It, or the relish with which Diaz plays the symptoms of a wicked hangover in Bad Teacher, offers a contagious sense of liberation. They’re powerful Hollywood actresses (and, in Barrymore’s case, a producer/director) leveraging their clout on the opposite of vanity projects.

Longworth aptly references Tad Friend’s New Yorker profile of Anna Faris, in which veteran movie executive Stacey Snider observes, “In my experience, girls’ revealing themselves as candid and raunchy doesn’t appeal to guys at all, and girls aren’t that into it, either.” The problem with that perspective, which like most industry axioms, is an impenetrable mixture of experience and unexamined prejudice, is that it forecloses a vast landscape of potential stories and characters. If everyone thought that way, we’d never have seen great comic turns like Faris in Smiley Face, or Jessica Hynes in the first series of Spaced, or Pamela Adlon on Lucky Louie

Sexual desirability—the fact that, as agent says of Faris in that New Yorker piece, “guys want to nail her”—is still the yardstick by which Hollywood actresses are measured. Bridesmaids opens with Kristen Wiig in her skivvies, as if to show viewers that the Saturday Night Live performer specializing in loopy grotesques still has a body to die for. Appearing alongside Bad Teacher is a Maxim portfolio posing Diaz stripped and glistening in a variety of hypersexualized riffs on the movie’s setting. (It’s worth noting that the movie’s car-wash scene is significantly less sultry than its lad-mag counterpart.) Reading the critiques of Bad Teacher, it's as though some people think Diaz is solely responsible for upholding the image of American women, but she isn’t the Sidney Poitier of hot blonde chicks. Surely there are enough female stars that a few of them can sporadically take on qualities that are cruel, selfish, even—shudder—unattractive. Perhaps Bridesmaids’ box-office take and Bad Teacher’s promising opening weekend are indicators that audiences aren’t as squeamish as Hollywood thinks. Maybe we’re ready to accept that women have bodily functions, and that they can be at least as crass and filthy, even as ugly, as men—partly because it advances the cause of feminism, but mostly because it’s funny.