Culture Club: When Girls Become Boys

By Tim Grierson

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In the past few years, one of the popular, feel-good Hollywood industry stories has been the discovery that people will pay money to see women be funny. Bridesmaids kick-started the trend; the 2011 comedy received plenty of good reviews, earned big at the box office and, according to some in the media, proved the viability of female comics. (The New York Times tagged the page for its Bridesmaids review “‘Bridesmaids’ Allows Women to Be Funny.”) Successful female-driven comedies followed–Identity Thief and The Heat chief among them, both of which are fronted by Bridesmaids co-star Melissa McCarthy and are proudly rude and occasionally raunchy, a thumbing of the nose at the conventional wisdom that foul-mouthed, R-rated movies are the sole domain of men.

The latest volley in this gender correction is The To Do List, a teen-sex comedy starring Aubrey Plaza as a high school valedictorian in the early 1990s desperately trying to rid herself of her virginity before she heads to college. The film in its design isn’t much different from American Pie, Superbad and other hormone-addled movies: It’s full of gross jokes, frank sex talk and awkward coming-of-age moments. The hook, however, is that this time it’s a woman, not a man, going through all the crazy exploits. As Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir acknowledges in his guardedly positive review, “This is definitely a formula movie…made by someone who obviously enjoyed American Pie and numerous other raunchy-sweet teen sex comedies of the 1990s, and wished they existed for girls.”

Perhaps such a trend could be looked at as progressive, even subversive. A few years ago, it would have been unthinkable in Hollywood to make a crass, gross-out comedy starring women. (When Sony tried in 2002 with The Sweetest Thing, it was a commercial bomb.) Guys are the slobs; women are the demure ones. But the more of these types of films we get, the less progressive they seem. The women in these movies don’t seem particularly liberated–they’re being allowed to be successful, but only by being men.

It’s not as if women haven’t been the leads in hit comedies before Bridesmaids. Case in point–the Sex and the City movies. But before Bridesmaids, a female-driven comedy tended to be romance-driven as well: Meeting the guy and keeping him are the main objectives. Produced by Judd Apatow (the filmmaker behind heartfelt, adolescent movies such as Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin) and directed by Freaks and Geeks creator Paul Feig, Bridesmaids is partly a twist on the typical gal-centric wedding comedy. This time, however, the wedding is de-emphasized to focus on the changing friendship between disheveled screw-up Annie (co-writer Kristen Wiig) and mature, responsible bride-to-be Lillian (Maya Rudolph), whose posh new lifestyle threatens to drive a deeper wedge between the two women.

But it’s not just the disinterest in the usual girlie-girl clichés of wedding comedies that sets Bridesmaids apart; it’s also the reliance on the kind of shocking, adult humor that’s usually the hallmark of bromance comedies like Wedding Crashers or Role Models. Rather than guys hanging out and being louts, it features women–led by McCarthy’s in-your-face portrayal of an obnoxious, horny bruiser, which ended up netting her an Oscar nomination. (Wiig and Annie Mumolo got one for their original screenplay as well.)

Bridesmaids is a funny, likeable movie that suggests that, hey, when women are alone together, they’re just as crass, flawed and embarrassing as dudes. Dudes are a staple in our culture–we seem them on sitcoms, in movies and in endless beer commercials–but Bridesmaids feels slightly revolutionary and empowering because it shows women being unladylike and doesn’t judge them for it.

Unfortunately, as is often the case in Hollywood, the success of Bridesmaids has spurred copycats that pump up that hit’s most obvious hook–its raunch–while ditching much of its humanity. Some of these films were actually produced before or around the time of Bridesmaids. The foul-mouthed Bad Teacher opened the same summer, and 2012’s Bachelorette (with Kirsten Dunst, Isla Fisher and Lizzy Caplan as nightmarish bridesmaids) was based on writer-director Leslye Headland’s 2010 play, but both were quickly labeled “the next Bridesmaids” because they played into the women-behaving-badly trend. Unfortunately, that’s all either of those movies were. At least Bachelorette tries to say something about the anxieties of modern young women, but Bad Teacher is essentially Bad Santa set in junior high school: nihilistic, amoral button-pushing. It also made more than $100 million, further proof that audiences are more than happy to see female characters who are horrible people.

In the wake of Bridesmaids, we don’t seem to be getting many mainstream comedies that actually are about women–we’re just getting more slob comedies and bromances, except with women. McCarthy’s pair of 2013 hits, Identity Thief and The Heat, would be rather generic if they starred men. (In fact, they’d be Due Date and The Other Guys.) But though they’re slightly more interesting because they feature women, their novelty doesn’t extend much beyond that conceit. This isn’t uncommon in other genres, of course–Angelina Jolie’s Salt was originally intended for Tom Cruise–but it’s more disappointing with these new comedies because they risk typecasting a fine comedic actress. Watch McCarthy host Saturday Night Live and you’ll see a versatile performer who can sing, dance and deliver playful charm. Yes, she can be the bulldozer too, but her trifecta of Bridesmaids–Identity Thief–The Heat leans so heavily on that one extreme aspect of her persona that it overshadows everything else she can do.

It’s not that women can’t be as loud and rude as their male counterparts in comedies. It’s that it shouldn’t be the only guise we see from women. (Who would want to watch Hangover films that consisted of only Zach Galifianakis types?) And, frankly, are typical dude-friendly comedies something to really aspire to?

Sitting through The To Do List, which is highlighted by Plaza’s affably nerdy performance, I realized I wasn’t watching much of the female perspective on teen sex and love–I was watching the same base sexual shenanigans as before. Though The To Do List is written and directed by a woman, Maggie Carey, and does touch on the intricacies of high school female relationships–how those bonds often offer a more stable emotional bond than a dipshit boyfriend can provide–the packaging is the same crass adolescent nonsense we’ve been seeing for years.

If such movies do well, it encourages a pyrrhic victory for female writers, directors and actors: You’ll get more chances in Hollywood, but only if you replicate the male-friendly formula we already have in place. That would be a shame, especially because there have been plenty of women-centric studio films in the past few years that offer far more interesting takes that go beyond simply lazily flipping the gender.

Take, for instance, Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, Whip It, a touching story about a women’s roller-derby team that eschews sports-movie clichés to look at a rudderless teen (Ellen Page) who has issues with her domineering mother (Marcia Gay Harden) and finds her place among the funny, hard-nosed ladies of the Hurl Scouts (including Barrymore and Wiig). Tina Fey has starred in two films, Baby Mama and Admission, that both step out of their genre conventions–the we’re-having-a-baby comedy and the rom-com, respectively–to look at how successful single professionals grapple with society’s attitudes about women’s place in the workforce. Emma Stone became a leading lady thanks to Easy A, a smarter variation of the teen comedy that treats its central character as a sophisticated, witty, sensitive young woman.

The problem with these movies is that they weren’t hits, which is the only metric Hollywood uses to determine which movies it will green-light in the future. They’re not without flaws, but what they all have over the Bridesmaids clones is that they don’t just insert women into standard male roles–they address gender issues while still being funny, romantic and entertaining. (Even better, they never make a big deal out of this fact.)

No doubt a lot of women (and men) are thrilled that we’re finally getting to a point that The Heat or The To Do List can be considered a major summer tentpole release. In an industry that still skews heavily male–and still mostly targets male viewers disproportionately–that’s something to cheer about. For a long time, women in the industry have insisted they wanted to be treated just like men. But with this new crop of coarse, formulaic comedies, Hollywood has decided to take their suggestion a little too literally.

Tim Grierson is Playboy for iPhone’s critic-at-large. You can follow him on Twitter.


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