Why Bridesmaids won’t save the “chick flick” (and shouldn’t have to)
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Last Friday night, I paid for a ticket to Bridesmaids—after I had already seen the movie the previous Tuesday at a free critics’ screening. Why shell out $11 to see a movie I had already seen 72 hours prior? Was it because, as Salon’s Rebecca Traister suggested, seeing Bridesmaids—or, more precisely, paying to see Bridesmaids—is my social responsibility? Because I must “persuade Hollywood that multidimensional women exist, spend money and deserve to be represented on film”? No, it was because I loved the movie the first time and wanted to see it again with my best friend, free of the obligation to take mental notes for A.V. Talk. While I’m glad all this campaigning seems to have helped propel the movie to a respectable opening, it’s annoying that I apparently can’t enjoy it outside of a bigger social picture, simply because it’s a “female” comedy and also happens to be good. Bridesmaids the movie is getting overshadowed by the increasingly obnoxious “Bridesmaids discussion,” which stems from the assumption that female-targeted movies are inherently bad.
This disdain for women-centric film is reflected in the terms we use to discuss them: “Rom-com” and “chick flick” have both been applied to Bridesmaids, usually in the context of “a chick flick that works!” or “saving the rom-com!” You know what else is a romantic comedy? The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Also Knocked Up and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Many, if not most of Judd Apatow’s previous dude-fronted outings have roughly the same amount of boy-meets-girl sweetness woven into their plots as Bridesmaids does, but no one applies the rom-com designation to those films, because romantic comedies are supposed to be a) about women and b) bad. That’s basically what the term means: “A bad movie about ladies talkin’ ’bout their feelings.” The derision is a little more surface-level with the term “chick flick,” what with the diminutive right there in the rhyme, but it’s just as nebulous: Family movies almost always have higher female audience numbers, but does that make the Harry Potter movies and Pixar films chick flicks? Is The Kids Are All Right a chick flick because it concerns romance and women talking about their feelings? Is middle-schooler masturbation fodder like Sucker Punch a chick flick by virtue of having a predominantly female cast? No, “chick flick” is also shorthand for “bad movie.” (Okay, so in that respect, maybe Sucker Punch applies.)
And, fair enough, there are a lot of bad “chick flicks” and “rom-coms” out there, just as there are plenty of bad CGI kiddie movies or shoot-em-up actioners out there. The problem is, these are the only terms we have for discussing mainstream, female-centric films, so we’re handcuffed into describing Bridesmaids as a “raunchy rom-com” or a “chick flick with balls,” or alternately, as a “female Hangover,” which is as inaccurate as it is dismissive. It isn’t enough for Bridesmaids to be a great comedy; it has to be a comedy that transcends the lady-movie ghetto, thereby becoming the thing to which all lady movies aspire. We don’t have the vocabulary to talk about what it is, so we elevate it into something it isn’t: a paradigm shift, a game-changer, whatever. And it isn’t just Bridesmaids; the upcoming Anna Faris vehicle What’s Your Number and Cameron Diaz’s Bad Teacher are already getting a similar “savior of the female comedy” treatment, goosed by that much-discussed recent New Yorker profile of Faris.
Maybe if we weren’t confined to thinking of all movies made by and for women as either “chick flicks” or “rom-coms,” we’d be free to enjoy and critique these movies outside of some greater feminist discussion—and, conversely, wouldn’t have to force lady-movie juggernauts like the Sex And The City films into the feminist discussion simply because they pass the Bechdel Test and open at No. 1. Even better, audiences both female and male would be able to go into these movies without donning the armor of enjoying a “guilty pleasure.” And maybe filmmakers and Hollywood execs would be able to imagine something outside the either-or scenario of “chick flick or good movie,” and take more chances on these sorts of movies. Yes, this is pie-in-the-sky philosophizing divorced from the reality of how movies are made, marketed, and critiqued, and no, I don’t have a solution to propose. I don’t even have better terms to propose, as evidenced by the repeated variations on “women-centric” and “lady movie” in this piece.
Maybe the solution is to get even more niche-y when talking about these movies. Slate has already gotten the ball rolling with the proposed “homance”—why not take it even further? We could have “period pieces” (movies designed to make hormonal women cry; see: The Notebook), “mom-coms” (movies featuring the sort of bland, inoffensive humor you can enjoy with your mom; see: Eat Pray Love), “bramances” (teen-girl coming-of-age flicks; see: Sisterhood Of The Travelling Pants), and “sis-uation comedies” (movies built on a foundation of strong female friendships; see: Sex And The City. Just the first one, though; no one should see SATC2 under any circumstances.) Maybe by embracing ever-more-ridiculous terminology, we’ll dilute the genre-pool to the point where “rom-com” and “chick flick” have as much connotation of quality as absurdities like “bromance,” and a movie like Bridesmaids could be seen for what it is at its core: a well-crafted comedy that just happens to feature an all-female cast.
Because Bridesmaids doesn’t need to be part of a bigger ideal. The movie earned plenty of advance attention on its own merits, thanks to a rollout strategy that included an extended advance-screening period similar to that of The Hangover. Both had a bunch of preview screenings over the course of several weeks—as opposed to the usual one or two held a week before release—and built up sizable buzz among audiences and critics alike. Clearly it worked for The Hangover, and it seems to have worked to a lesser degree for Bridesmaids, which hovered around a 90 percent “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes as it opened. We don’t need to apply this overblown—and, frankly, patronizing—idea of “social responsibility” to Bridesmaids. It’s a funny, audience-pleasing movie that generated enough word of mouth to succeed without some manufactured bigger-picture ideal elevating it into something its creators never intended it to be: A recent New York Times piece suggests Kristen Wiig is uncomfortable with the notion that her movie is any more “groundbreaking” than Baby Mama or Romy And Michelle’s High School Reunion.
Not everything pertaining to female-fronted entertainment has to be A Statement, and trying to turn featherweight notions like comedy and pop music into grand concepts can come off as silly at best, obnoxious at worst. (See also: Lady Gaga.) Ultimately, that kind of thinking proves self-defeating: Bridesmaids isn’t going to put an end to substandard “chick flicks” any more than Pixar movies have put an end to crappy CGI family fare like Hop, and it’s unfair to place that sort of expectation on it—or on What’s Your Number or Bad Teacher, both of which are just as likely to sink this trend of “good chick flicks” as they are to extend it. We need to stop thinking of female entertainment as something that needs to be saved and allow the cream to rise to the top naturally. Rom-coms and chick-flicks don’t need these movies to save them; these movies need to be saved from loaded terms like “rom-com” and “chick flick.” Hell, we all need to be saved from them.