If this film’s three wildly divergent titles have you scratching your head, that’s because all three are terrible titles for a really pretty great feminist comedy. I wouldn’t have known it at all but for Wikipedia’s list of female buddy films.
The trick to Sarah Kemochan’s loosely autobiographical film is that it hides its feminism for a while behind all the usual clichés of girls’ boarding school films … particularly those set in 1963, as this one is. But when the feminism comes, it hits you in the head and the story takes a really interesting turn … and then does it again at about the 80-minute mark. (Can you just stop reading right now, watch the film on YouTube, and get back to me when you’re done?)
Every boarding school film appears contractually obligated to begin with a reluctant new student whose parents have shipped her/him off due to behavioral problems. In this case, Odette (Gaby Hoffman, center) has been caught preparing to lose her virginity to her boyfriend Dennis. Off to Miss Godard’s School she goes, destined to share a room with Verena (Kirsten Dunst) and Tinka (Monica Keena), who have reputations for being a troublemaker and, well, a slut, respectively. Adding to the usual suspects are the ravenously bulimic Tweety (Heather Matarazzo), and the studious, ambitious Momo (Merritt Wever). First cliché: once she falls in with the troublemakers, Odette starts to love her life at Miss Godard’s.
Sure, it’s not all roses. The school features a group of rules-oriented monitors, the most officious of whom is Abby (Rachael Leigh Cook, above center) who roams the halls looking for miscreants and tattling on her peers. “Miss Godard believed the girls should govern themselves, so we learn to take responsibility for our actions,” Abby chirps with those all-too-familiar evil eyes. Cliché #2: oh, those stooopid rules!
But be not afraid: things start to get more interesting. Odette finds that her four new best friends share not just a disdain for Miss Godard’s rules, but also for the trap such obedience has prepared for them: they are determined not to fall for the usual future of a husband, two children, a Colonial, and a collie. “No more white gloves!” they proclaim, dedicating themselves to far more wild and unpredictable futures: Verena wants to spearhead an international fashion magazine; Tinka plans to be an “actress/folk singer/slut,” Momo a biologist, and Tweety a child psychologist. What does Odette want? Short term: sex; long term: to be a politician.
The films takes its time getting underway, for it feels the need to introduce us to a wide array of supporting characters, not least of whom are the slightly feral town boys — the leader of whom, Snake (!), played by a very young (but no less oily) Vincent Kartheiser, immediately falls in love with the luscious Tinka. So you’d be forgiven if you arrived at this point thinking that the film would continue to take the one-adventure-at-a-time narrative path, something like the wonderful boarding school film Outside Providence (1999) — and like that film, stay focused on problems like whether Snake and Tinka will make out, and how Odette will find a way to have sex, finally, with Dennis.
That would be the wrong assumption, for it’s at this point that the No More White Gloves girls discover that the school’s board of directors wants to solve its financial problems by merging with a nearby boys’ school. And the narrative starts to cook.
When they meet to assess the situation, they find themselves deeply divided — because unlike their friends, Momo and Verena hate the idea of a co-ed school. At the most basic level for Momo it’s simply a question of logic: she knows full well she won’t get into MIT if she has to compete with boys from the same school. But she and Verena agree that the real problem is the inevitable en-stoopiding of the female students. “This is a school! we’re supposed to be getting smarter!” If the schools merge, Momo warns, “we’ll all be killing ourselves to be cute!” and all for the “hairy bird,” which is their description of boys’ genitals.
Verena’s assessment is even more damning. All the attention to cuteness and personal care will make Miss Godard’s girls too tired to think. “But that’s okay, because the teachers, they won’t call on you anyway. Also, you don’t wanna be smarter than the boys — they don’t like that.” Going co-ed will trick everyone into falling for the white gloves and the full constricted future that goes with them. When Tinka protests that “real life is boy-girl, boy-girl,” Verena screams, “No. Real life is boy on top of girl.“
Transcribing this scene doesn’t capture how much I was taken aback by this exchange, by its sudden clarity and perfect articulation of why single-sex schools are so spectacularly good for girls. The clichés didn’t fall away completely, but I became waaaayyyy more interested … and the film ratchets things up again later with the same dramatic skill.
If the film’s central plot now turns around the question of whether — and how — our No White Gloves heroines can prevent the school from going co-ed, it might sound corny. Rather, I should say it is corny, but in a way fully in keeping with some of the overall rules of the boarding-school film genre (illicit sex, alcohol, secret passageways, revenge on evil teachers, etc.). Nor is it perfect; the film ultimately sacrifices Verena in a bizarrely implausible plot turn. But it also gains back Odette as a leader-orator in a way that made me so happy that I’m almost willing to let Verena get toasted.
As I’ve discussed already with this marathon (especially re: the tragically disappointing Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion), female buddy movies often sneak in a boatload of anti-feminist crap as they throw us the bone of female friendship. The Hairy Bird tries something entirely different. This film throws us the bone of a little hairy bird in order to make a powerful, feminist argument for female friendship, ambition, single-sex educational excellence, and collective action.
In fact, I was so happy with this film that I now fret that no other female buddy picture can measure up. The only film I can imagine following up with is Thelma and Louise. Join me, won’t you — in about a week, when I’ve had the chance to watch it again for the first time since 1992. Let’s see how it measures up to its reputation as the great female buddy picture of American film history, shall we? (It certainly has a better title than this poor film.)
Female buddy pictures: “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion” (1997); or, the dark side of girls onscreen
23 November 2013
In writing about Revenge of the Bridesmaids yesterday I enumerated some of the ways the broader genre of female buddy pictures might keep their stories simple (and very, very pink), but still manage to show women who love each other and say funny things during funny situations. “When we can say that no feminists were harmed in the viewing of this film — well, sometimes that has to be enough,” I concluded about a film I truly liked.
Sadly, this is not always the case. Today, the darker side of very pink female buddy pictures.
- The women are gorgeous, and one might be even a little bit more gorgeous than the other one (or so we are taught to perceive).
- Dieting and body size are far more crucial to the narrative than I can bear (i.e., one of our heroines used to be fat).
- They are not rich or successful, and are somewhat insecure about their overall failures; but as the story unfolds they are handed incredible opportunities for success on a platter.
- In fact, their shared insecurity forms one of the important aspects of their love for each other.
- They are not incredibly bright, so that we can have wacky adventures with them springing from their ditziness.
- They are united in their hatred of The Mean Girl(s) who torments them and inevitably becomes central to the story; The Mean Girl(s) is portrayed as a natural part of the landscape, whereas we are to understand that good female buddies are a rare and wonderful thing.
Perhaps as you read the above you think, “That’s exactly why I hate these goddamn female buddy pictures! The only possible feminism there consists of their friendship for one another, and just look at how contingent that is—contingent on their gorgeousness, dieting, insecurity, shared poverty, and nuttiness!”
With that laid out, shall we discuss Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion?
To start, let’s be clear: Lisa Kudrow is a comic genius, even if here she mostly reprises her role on the otherwise execrable show Friends. As the bubbly Michele, she’s unemployed but ever since high school has thrown her very best talents into designing and sewing up the fantastic going-out wardrobe she shares with Romy (Mira Sorvino) in their teensy little seaside LA apartment, where they’ve lived for ten years—ever since graduating from high school. The slightly-less dopey Romy works as a cashier for the service department of a Jaguar dealership by day so they can go out dancing every night. In short, their lives are awesome.
But when they hear about the imminent ten-year reunion for their high school back in Tucson and the two women sit down and go through their yearbook (flashback!) and imagine attending, Romy arrives at a single, disturbing conclusion: their lives are not nearly as awesome once you start looking at them through other people’s eyes. She gazes vaguely into the distance, gets a determined look on her face, and pronounces that they will spend the next two weeks losing weight, scoring boyfriends, and finding a job for Michele.
It might take an extraordinarily long time for them to realize the futility of their plans – these are not smart women – but they ultimately land on a new plan: they will pretend to be successful businesswomen and impress the hell out of all the people who tormented them in high school for being weird and not terribly bright. The flashback assists in showing them at the senior prom, sans dates, dressed (awesomely, below) as two different incarnations of Madonna, mocked by evil A-list meanies.
Now: do I have a problem with our heroines looking like Madonna? Hellz to the no. Nor do I take issue with the “let’s prove the meanies wrong about us!” impulse. But ugh, the stupidity … and the dieting.
Romy and Michele has plenty of virtues, and they don’t end with the clothes. The ultimate message here — about what a neat-o bond the two women have always had — is lovely, even if the film portrays that friendship as exceptional in the world of women. Nor do I object to Mira Sorvino’s stilted, oddly deep voice for the role, which I found sort of adorable. Also: Janeane Garofalo, who lifts up even the crappiest of material (and she got a lot of crappy material there for a while) even when she’s limited to playing the kohl-eyed, chain-smoking naysayer … again.
I also feel as if I could have forgiven the film if it hadn’t cooked up a phony conflict between Romy and Michele in the middle — a conflict springing directly out of their invented story about themselves. With this single plot device, the film brings up every one of the worst aspects of female buddy pictures: who’s smarter? who’s prettier? who’s less of a loser? who’s going to wind up with money? who’s going to be the winner in the battle for the one slightly worthy guy?
Not to mention that the film asks us to buy the concept that two women who look like this might have been losers in high school, even if one of them wore a scoliosis brace and the other hadn’t yet dyed her hair blonde.
Thus, even though the film ultimately confirms the enduring value of their friendship, it does so by reminding us of their shared ditziness/insecurity/need to unite against Mean Girl(s). It hands them a happy ending on a plate — via the largess of a rich guy. We walk away laughing, again, at how bad they are at math.
So yeah. Was my feminism harmed in the viewing of this film? Yes. Yes, it was.
But do I have a pathway out of this morass? Natch! Stay tuned for a feminism-confirming adventure into the world of girls’ boarding schools in 1963 with the film All I Wanna Do (1998), also released under the separate titles Strike! and The Hairy Bird. Even better, a copy of this one has been uploaded to YouTube — not great quality, and it’s segmented, but you watch all 97 minutes in the comfort of your own laptop. Keep up your strength, my feminist friends.
21 November 2013
The fact is that if a film starts with an image that looks like this, I’m probably going to like it. Even if the film originated on the ABC Family channel (I’m trying to repress the channel’s Pat Robertson connection).
This is Abigail (Raven-Symoné), who shares a New York apartment with her lifelong best friend Parker (Joanna Garcia). They’re trying to make it — Abigail as a novelist, Parker as an actor. But as she poses for her police booking photo, Abigail tells us in voiceover:
Something you should know about me: I have a little problem with authority. In second grade I told our music teacher, Mrs. Quarantine, that if she wanted us to sing like birds, she should get some freakin’ birds.
Parker: I laughed so hard I peed.
They’re not the nice kinds of bridesmaids. “We’re more like the avenging angels who’re gonna give you what you have coming to you kinds of bridesmaids,” Parker explains. You see? This, from the Pat Robertson channel? I loved it.
That’s the thing about Revenge of the Bridesmaids — it bucks up against virtually every taboo you might expect from a wholesome network like ABC Family (and yes, it’s streaming on Netflix). Young people have sex. They drink. They move away from their provincial, oppressive small hometown in Louisiana to go to New York, where they try improbable careers like actor and writer, even if they aren’t incredibly good at those careers.
While on a short trip back home, Parker and Abigail discover that their other great friend has had the love of her life stolen out from under her by the rich Mean Girl, Caitlyn (Virginia Williams), who literally lives in one of those creepy antebellum plantation manors. Naturally they plot revenge. Naturally we root for them, even though we know somehow they’re going to wind up at the police station getting booked.
- a plotline from An Officer and a Gentleman (1982)
- Parker developing a possible love interest with the local cop (handy, that)
- Caitlyn’s evil-bitch mother, who is a lot smarter than her daughter, and demands that Abigail go on a diet
- a chipper-shredder
Perhaps this is the moment to warn you of a few things. If you read the title Revenge of the Bridesmaids and thought, whew, that sounds like a lot of pink buttercream frosting, you have nailed it. No new feminist ground is forged here; maybe it’s best described as apt for fans of Drew Barrymore rom-coms. You will not finish this film and feel liberated, enlightened, or particularly intelligent. All I can say is that I watched the entire thing and enjoyed practically every minute, while my partner — whose appetite for rom-coms is usually far greater than mine — walked out. Too much frosting.
So yeah, I’ve taken a perhaps overly rosy view of a film that would probably only score about 3 stars out of 5. But that’s the thing, you see. How often do I get to see a film in which two women get to love each other like this? Sure, their love for each other also gets framed by their shared hatred for Evil Caitlyn, but who doesn’t have an Evil Caitlyn in her life somewhere? Is it so wrong that us feminists want to have a little pink buttercream every now and then?
That’s the thing about female buddy pictures: they represent the sugary crumbs that women get in a world in which male buddy pictures outnumber female ones about 100 to 1.
- They point out how often women have to survive on high-sugar content films like this in order to see women who love each other and do things together — in short, films that pass the Bechdel Test.
- Creators of such films KISS [keep it simple, stupid] by selecting super-girlie themes. As much as I liked the avenging-angel bridesmaids, I want to see more films without weddings in them.
- These films just love to drop in plenty of male love interests. After all, let’s not go too far with that whole Bechdel Test thing, you can hear them saying.
- Why is it always the skinny one who gets the boyfriend in the end?
In retrospect I realize one of the things I loved about Orange is the New Black is how much it messed with genre tropes like this. Gone was the pink frosting; in its place was women’s prison. Women were just as close to one another, but some of them also leapt over the big heterosexual wall erected in fluff like Revenge of the Bridesmaids.
Yes, I’m saying that OITNB might be the best female buddy picture I’ve seen all year.
Lest you cease to trust my judgment about film, I think it’s best that I pair this rosy view of Revenge of the Bridesmaids with a snarky feminist view of a very similar film, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion (1997), which I’ll discuss tomorrow. Stay tuned for a rant.
But I’m going to stick with my endorsement of Revenge. Films like this may pit good girls against bad, reward them with love interests, and shower everyone in frothy clothing and only slightly off-color language and situations. Only to have someone like me say, “Hey, that was a lot more off-color than one might expect from the Pat Robertson channel!” But they also show women going all-in to help one another. When we can say that no feminists were harmed in the viewing of this film — well, sometimes that has to be enough.
18 November 2013
What’s not to love here? Subsisting on a steady diet of tea AND coffee myself, I can still see getting myself into this predicament.
I promise, once I swim back up to the top of my ocean of paperwork, I’ll finish my first post on Revenge of the Bridesmaids for my new Movie Marathon on Female Buddy Movies. I promise. Swimming as fast as I can ….
29 October 2013
So Aldine came up with a great recommendation: that I start a mini-marathon of female buddy movies.
Beyond the classic Thelma and Louise (1991), it might be difficult to think of many of these — after all, we know from the Bechdel Test that the vast majority of films can’t be bothered to have two female characters with names who speak to each other, and who speak to each other about something other than men.
This is why the internet was invented: to offer a Wikipedia page called Female Buddy Pictures. So I’m going in search of some of the titles I’ve found there — including the weirdly intriguing Revenge of the Bridesmaids (2010), which is streaming on Netflix. (I hasten to note that the film description and photos online do not promise great things about this one, but I just like the fact that its two main stars are actually Black and Latina. Is that possible?)
Anyway, I might have to revisit the film optimis Thelma and Louise along the way, but in general I’m going to look for the overlooked — and imagine my perfect world, in which I run a movie theater that people actually come to, at which I get to hold my own movie marathons. Please join in!
27 October 2013
Perhaps when I say that this film is set in 1959, you’ll roll your eyes and anticipate a Mad Men copycat.
Or worse: a copycat of those frothy Rock Hudson-Doris Day fluff pieces that promised some kind of “battle of the sexes” but only wound up sexist. Could it be as bad as Down With Love (2003) with Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor, reprising every awful sexist thing about the Day/ Hudson pairing?
The good news is that Régis Roinsard’s Populaire is not that film. In fact, it actually undermines the sexism of that time as well as in our memory of it.
As you can already tell, Rose (Déborah François) is a secretary for Louis (Romain Duris), a small-town insurance agent. Or rather, she wants to be a secretary. Her big ticket out of her miserably provincial hometown to a slightly larger one is that she has taught herself to type, two-finger style — and she’s fast. Louis has no intention of hiring her until she flies into her typing demon mode, whips out a copy of a letter lickety split, and looks just a little bit interesting doing it.
Plenty handsome, Louis is also a teensy bit tragic: long ago his American wartime buddy won the heart of his one-time girlfriend, Marie (Bérénice Bejo, whose long neck and knowing look make her perfectly cast as a glamorous late 50s woman). And maybe there’s something else about Louis, too — a bit of thwarted competitiveness, perhaps.
But just when you think, “Yeah, yeah, now the reluctant and slightly tragic dude just has to realize how wonderful the young blonde thing is,” the movie turns into a caper. Louis decides that Rose’s typing is so remarkable that she should enter the regional speed typing competition — and he undertakes to train her for it.
I don’t mean simply training on the typewriter, but a full regimen: jogging, piano lessons with Marie, and the slow and painful process of learning to type with all ten fingers rather than the two index finger method.
Sure, this is froth. Training for a speed-typing contest? But what I found delightful about the film was its insistence that Rose finds this shared quest to be exhilarating, and not just because she’s so taken with Louis. Their shared pursuit becomes the basis for a far more interesting relationship than virtually anything we’ve seen from Hollywood in 2013. (It’s been a bad year.)
That’s right: this film isn’t the kind of makeover movie in which a homely heroine takes off her glasses, flips her hair out, and wins over the handsome guy. This is some other makeover movie, in which you find yourself caught up in Rose’s quest to get faster on the typewriter. And once we arrive at the speed-typing contests — for there are several — the film makes you wonder whether such spectacles really happened, as they’re kind of wonderful.
Without losing its full head of foam, the film doesn’t really allow you to worry whether Rose and Louis will wind up together. We know full well that this is a shameless delivery vehicle for romance. But in the meantime it proffers a skewed view of a relationship between a man and a woman during the late 50s — one in which the man needs to overcome his self-defeat and a woman needs to get a lot faster on the typewriter.
And oh! the speed-typing contests!
Populaire won’t forge any feminist ground — after all, its raison d’être is simply to slather on some romance for those of us too weak-minded for much of anything else. But it does something interesting with gender here nevertheless such that its avoidance of all those antifeminist tropes manages to feel like a triumph.
Perhaps I protest too much. You’ll just have to watch and tell me what you think, won’t you?
If I haven’t already made it clear on this blog, I find Romain Duris handsome, which a young man ought to be if he possibly can. (His character is thereby complete.) And Déborah François is exactly perfect without ever being grating; she alternates between fierce determination, awkwardness, innocence, and talking back — such that when she arrives at the typing contest you just want to see how it’s going to turn out.
Will Populaire change your life? Absolutely not. Some of you especially cynical types might find it far too sugary. (But please, people — wait for the sex scene.) Will it divert the rest of you for an entire evening at the end of a long week? Why, yes. And thank god for that.
26 October 2013
I have spent the last week feeling rage at both my students and the current system of higher education.
It springs from the assignment. I asked my students to use online sources for their research — library catalogues, databases — to locate scholarly information and learn how to create a bibliography. One aspect of the assignment asked them to show that they understood the difference between how to cite a book in a footnote, and how to cite it in a bibliography or “works cited” page. In anticipation of the assignment, I showed them essentially how to find the answers to every question.
Everything went wrong. Only about 20% used the right online sources to answer questions. No one understands how to cite anything, despite all the information I provided. Some of them cited radically incorrect material, like novels or advertisements. After grading 15 of these, the highest grade was a 67.
To be fair, many of them use the term novel to describe everything — scholarly books, journal articles, memoirs — even though I’ve told them this is incorrect. I tried to teach them the word monograph to describe focused scholarly books, so 50% of my students now refer to them as monograms.
This is so frustrating for me, perhaps because I want to believe my students might actually be better at locating online information than I am. “Are they just stupid?” I spluttered at my colleague on Thursday, using a term I strongly dislike and almost never use except when referring to members of Congress.
But of course the true reason I’m so frustrated is because they didn’t pay attention while I tried to teach them to fish, and because I’m so goddamn tired.
My frustration is unfounded, because even if my students might be good at this kind of quest, they’re just goddamn exhausted. Many of them work at least 40 hours a week at the same time that they take 5 or more classes. One student — a highly capable guy in his 30s who has returned to complete his degree because he has discovered that his true calling is to become a high school teacher — got teary-eyed in my office this week telling me that he can’t handle the pressures of work and school, plus the family crises that have plagued the past few months.
Another woman told me that her boss has decided to stop allowing full-time student employees to adjust their schedules around their school schedules. So unless she wants to lose her job (and not pay her rent), my student has to skip classes to show up to be a hostess at a restaurant.
This is a crisis, folks. And it’s a direct parallel to what is now facing our government. My students have high tuition rates and extremely low financial aid of any kind, which necessitates all the part-time jobs. They cannot succeed in college if they work that much. Which means that they are being starved of a respectable education, only to receive the halfhearted one they can fit in between work schedules.
And meanwhile us college professors are left wondering what this means for us. Do we lower our expectations? We get told all the time to liven up our teaching, to make it more interactive and more dynamic, but the problem is not that we are tedious bores.
The problem is that our students are starving, and that we are being asked to ignore it — or to adjust our expectations, given the fact that they’re starving. At the same time, our universities ask us to do more with less — faculty is getting starved, too. And I’m one of the lucky ones, with a secure, tenure-line job, benefits, retirement program, etc.
I’m so goddamn tired.