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.

romy_and_michelles_high_school_reunion000127The thing about buying into the genre of female buddy pictures is they also may ask you to buy into another set of ideas about what it takes for women to be friends. Let me enumerate:

  • 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.

romy-and-michelle-2Perhaps 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.

romyandmichele-01

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.

romy-micheles-high-school-reunion--large-msg-127370656333Now: 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.

Janeane Garofalo_RomyMichelle 02Is it just me, or do other people also get happy every time they see Garofalo onscreen, no matter the material?

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.

tumblr_lgh4t5km7A1qgo5zmThus, 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.

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8 Responses to “Female buddy pictures: “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion” (1997); or, the dark side of girls onscreen”

  1. Becky Says:

    Janeane Garofalo, oh yes, she is fabulous!

  2. Jess Says:

    Can I recommend you give the new June Diane Raphael/Casey Wilson comedy Ass Backwards a review within this caveat?

    • Didion Says:

      Oh, interesting! I’d read about this film but haven’t seen it … but it appears to be available online. Definitely checking it out. Did you like the film? or does it fit into the Romy and Michele category?


  3. A couple of things;

    1. Yes, I get happy every time I see Garofalo. I miss Garofalo on the big screen.
    2. I hated Romy and Michelle.
    3. One of my most vivid (now realized to be political) messages I remember from being just a kid is: “Boys can be friends in a group, they are straight forward and inclusive. Girls form single attachments to a Best Friend, as if they are preparing for adulthood’s partnership. Three or more girls playing together will always result in jealousy, secrecy and competition.”
    4. Did I mention I hate society?


  4. […] the genre: the wedding/bridesmaid movie (Revenge of the Bridesmaids), the Very Pink/ girlie comedy (Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion), the boarding school dramedy (The Hairy Bird), and the field-defining roadtrip movie (Thelma and […]


  5. […] buddy movies, it’s that these films are not inherently feminist (I’m looking at you, Romy and Michele) except insofar as they feature women at the center. But the best ones offer both feminist […]


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