1 February 2014
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my mini-marathon of female 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 critiques of male domination and a vision of what happens when you push women to the edge.
If F. Gary Gray’s Set It Off doesn’t quite rise to high filmic art, it makes for perfect marathon material, especially after seeing Thelma and Louise. The themes in both films match up — these films show women who’ve been jerked around by men, bosses, the police, and the system — but become even more critical when they treat Black women rather than white. Their rage is all the more justified because they’ve been fighting two battles, not just one.
If any of them who should have made it out of their housing project, it’s Frankie (Vivica A. Fox), whose immaculate straight hair, professional wardrobe, and talents as a bank clerk have won her raises and promotions at her job. But when one of the guys from the neighborhood shows up at her teller’s window and initiates a bank robbery, she tries to talk him out of it — a conversation that the police and the bank manager see on the security video later. How can they know she wasn’t involved as an inside man? Of course they fire her, and refuse to offer her a reference.
Just like that, all those years of professionalism go down the drain. Worse, she’s reduced to working alongside her lifelong friends cleaning office buildings in downtown LA during the night shift.
Each of them has a story like this one. T.T. (Kimberly Elise) struggles as a single mother to pay for childcare on her lean income. Cleo (Queen Latifah) is openly gay and has developed the tough persona of one who deals with homophobia on a regular basis. And then there’s Stoney (Jada Pinkett). It’s bad enough that she’s willing to do anything to find the money to fund her brother’s entry to UCLA. But then he gets shot and killed by police, mistaken for one of the project’s bank robbers, and all the police can do is apologize weakly.
In other words, the film’s setup follows that of Thelma and Louise: it highlights the ways that women get beaten down by men — sexually, economically, psychologically — and have so much of their potential taken out from under them. But there are marked differences between those earlier white women and Set It Off‘s Black women. Whereas Louise is able to get thousands of dollars from her own bank account, these four have nothing. When you add racial discrimination to gender bias, the women’s rage is all the more infectious.
Frankie knows exactly how to respond: rob a bank. She knows how banks work; she knows how to avoid the mistakes made by the guys in the project who got Stoney’s brother killed. Most of all, she’s clearheaded about the morality of it. “We’re just taking away from the system that’s fucking us all anyway, y’know?” The main question, after their first hit goes fast and furious and they escape with thousands of dollars, is how many more banks to rob.
In the meantime, Stoney gets hit on by a slick banker (Blair Underwood) while casing the joint. Keith is tall, rich, educated, and good-looking. A Harvard grad. With a glamorous apartment. She struggles on their dates to hold him at arm’s length — why? Is it because the attraction is so one-sided? because she’s worried he’ll learn about the grittiness of her life and her job as a cleaner, or about her sideline as a bank robber?
I’m not sure, but I’d like to say Stoney’s hesitation springs from Keith’s patronizing tones — his “I’ve got the wind at my back” cockiness, his overly slippery eagerness to transform her into Pretty Woman, to “take her away from all that.” No one can convey that kind of motivational ambivalence better than Underwood, who could win a nationwide contest for Guy I’d Most Like To Date Who’s Most Likely To Have An Evil Side. At one point he even takes a detour on their way out so he can buy her a glamorous dress and shoes. On their dates, he asks Stoney loaded questions like, “Do you feel free?” “I don’t feel free,” she replies. “I feel very much caged.” And clearly her dates with him don’t help.
But to be fair, the bank jobs don’t help, either. They start fighting amongst themselves, allowing them to reference Thelma and Louise and The Godfather and thereby raise questions about how it will all end.
I’ve already mentioned that Set It Off doesn’t climb to high art, but what it does achieve is a far more powerful indictment of racial & gender discrimination than in Thelma and Louise, and a conclusion that (like its predecessor) goes places you wouldn’t expect. In fact, I began to realize that the film’s weaknesses reflect the same kind of low expectations from Hollywood that are turned into themes in the film. For all those reasons I urge you to hunt down a copy (not easy! I had to inter-library loan mine) and watch it as a double bill with T&L to get another glimpse of the female rage made possible by feminism in the 1990s.
In retrospect, Set It Off and Thelma and Louise reflects that great, pre-ironic feminist moment in film when narratives could evoke the enraging, impossible constraints placed on everyday women. It reminds me of the most disturbing aspects of Susan Douglas’ Enlightened Sexism, which describe how media began to undermine the feminism with ironic winks at the audience while peddling old-fashioned sexism. Can I just say, again, that I miss the old-fashioned female rage?
As I wrote about Nine to Five a couple of days ago I kept thinking about all the categories within the genre of female buddy movies — the road movie, the wedding/bridesmaid comedy, etc. — but this one doesn’t fit into any category, except camp. It’s a retelling of Some Like It Hot (1958), except in this case Connie (Nia Vardalos) and Carla (Toni Collette) are already women, so when they go on the lam to escape the bad guys, they disguise themselves as drag queens.
Maybe I wouldn’t have liked Connie and Carla so much if I hadn’t been searching for female buddy comedies amongst such gems as Britney Spears’ Crossroads (rating = 3.1 on IMDB), Bratz: The Movie (2.4 on IMDB), or The House Bunny, in which a Playboy bunny finds a place to live in a sorority house (kill me now). Maybe. Still: I loved it.
To start, they throw themselves into their dinner theater act at the Chicago airport with ridiculous energy, no matter their audiences’ lack of interest. They ricochet through their medley of wildly incongruous show tunes and on-stage costume changes, from “Oklahoma!” to “Jesus Christ Superstar” to “Papa Can You Hear Me?” (from Yentl) to “Memories” (from Cats), all with the self-seriousness of two women who have had the same dream since they were kids.
Just because they witnessed a murder doesn’t mean they have any intention of finding a new dream.
Racing away from the bad guys, knowing that they’ll be hunted down, the two performers know one thing: “We gotta go some place where we can just blend in. Somewhere where they’d never look for us, because there’s no theater, no musical theater, no dinner theater, no culture at all.” They pause, and Carla comes up with the solution: “Los Angeles!”
It’s no surprise, then, that when they audition at the Handlebar in full drag — and actually sing their own songs rather than lip-sync like all the other contestants (Collette and Vardalos have great voices, and harmonize gorgeously and loudly together) — they’re embraced by the other queens as having real talent. It doesn’t hurt that both women look like queens without hamming it up, especially Collette, whose crazily big eyes and mouth are so perfectly suited for drag makeup that she actually scales back the broadness of her comedy because to be less subtle would go over the top. Soon they’ve created a popular new show they call “It’s A Drag (Pun Intended!)” which I would march out to see this minute.
I figure that a tale as silly as this one needs to skirt a couple of rocks and hard places: first, it needs to avoid appearing to simply use drag culture for cheap laughs; and second, it needs to avoid using drag culture as an opportunity for teaching a Very Special Lesson About Acceptance. It achieves the first better than the second, because a major subplot reveals that their beloved upstairs neighbor Peaches (Stephen Spinella) broke all ties long ago with his intolerant family, but his little brother Jeff (David Duchovny, who’s perfectly cute but zzzzzzzz) now wants to rebuild their relationship even though he feels an obvious distaste for Peaches’ feminine side and everything associated with the Handlebar’s drag culture.
For the most part the film keeps this subplot relatively light, since it’s also an opportunity for Connie to fall for Jeff and to find it difficult to maintain her drag persona around him. Can she get him to fall for her, even if he thinks she’s a man? Eat your heart out, Shakespeare and As You Like It.
More important than these narrative/casting missteps is the fact that Connie and Carla is a love letter to drag culture and the outré world of dinner theater, and it slips in some blowsy female self-empowerment along the way, too. As the performers start to build increasingly adoring audiences at the Handlebar, they start to pepper their act with banter that celebrates femininity and self-acceptance while also getting delivered with a knowing wink from these women-disguised-as-men-who-dress-as-women.
In fact, when Connie wonders aloud at an odd moment backstage whether they ought to go on diets, Carla whips her huge, makeuped face around and sets her straight: “All these women come to our show and idolize us because as men we have better self-esteem than they do!” (The diet gets nixed.)
What can I say? With great singing, all those show tunes, pretty terrific acting from Vardalos and Collette, and a goofily madcap gender-bending storyline written by Vardalos (as her follow-up to My Big Fat Greek Wedding), Connie and Carla is ridiculous but entirely enjoyable. Don’t believe those snarky reviews written by the critics when it came out — assholes! — trust the people at Logo TV who’ve got it on regular rotation. Maybe it won’t win any prizes (except one for wigs and makeup from the Canadian Network of Makeup Artists) but I’m going to put this on my shortlist of movies to watch when I’m feeling a little blue. Because Connie and Carla know how to sing through the pain — and I’ve got a drag queen buried deep inside me just itching to get out. If only I could sing like C&C.
So far in my Female Buddy Movies mini-marathon, I’ve covered four key aspects of 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 Louise). Clearly what we need next is a female buddy picture set in the workplace.
After all, isn’t it always the workplace where we become feminists — because there we witness what horrors still await us in a man’s world?
When Nine to Five originally opened in 1980, I was too young to be fully conscious of its cultural reception, but my hazy memory recalls a lot of hubbub about this overtly feminist comedy. Sure enough, Vincent Canby’s original New York Times review calls it “a militant cry for freedom” that waves “the flag of feminism as earnestly as Russian farmers used to wave the hammer-and-sickle at the end of movies about collective farming.”
That statement is so over-the-top that it makes me want someone to write a cultural history of this film to explain how anyone could describe it as “militant,” but this film is still so full of comedic satisfaction that I want to eat it.
I mean, look at Judy Bernly (Fonda), the divorcée whose husband just left her for his secretary, and who has just shown up for her first day of work at Consolidated Companies. “We’re gonna need a special locker for the hat,” says Violet (Lily Tomlin) in a sardonic aside as she shows Judy the ropes. She looks more like a 1948 working woman than one in 1980, and everyone producing this film surely knew that; her comical naïvete is meant to reassure us that she’s no strident feminist.
Nor is the curvaceous Doralee (Dolly Parton), who has put up with their boss Mr. Hart (Dabney Coleman) and his sexual harassment for years. As he pretends to apologize, she says sweetly, “Oh Mr. Hart, you didn’t make a mistake. You see I’ll just have to remember to check, the next time I’m asked to go to work at a convention that there is a convention going on.” Little does she know that the whole office believes she really is sleeping with him, and that it’s all due to his loose lips.
Violet’s most likely to mount a militant campaign, but she’s been waiting for a promotion from Hart for weeks — and she made up her mind to be a good girl in the meantime.
But he gives the promotion to a man rather than to Violet, and she finally loses it. “The company needs a man in this position,” he explains. “Clients would rather deal with men when it comes to figures.”
Violet is livid. “Oh, now we’re getting at it. I lose a promotion because of some idiot prejudice. The boys in the club are intimidated, and you’re so intimidated by any woman who doesn’t sit at the back of the bus.” Unmoved, Hart simply responds with a “Spare me the women’s lib crap, okay?” This is what the film does honestly — shows what women suffer in the workplace, with less-qualified men puffing and preening and taking credit for their work. When Violet reveals that Hart has let the whole office believe he’s sleeping with Doralee, the three women storm off to a bar.
Then they get spectacularly stoned (ah, remember the good old days, when ordinary non-stoner movies featured scenes of the characters getting baked?) and spin out fantasies about what they’d do to Hart if they could.
But that’s the thing. They only fantasize about giving Hart a taste of his own medicine, or hunting him down with a gun, or popping him out the window of his skyscraper office. If this film rises to “militant” it does so simply by showing the women’s rage alongside their helplessness to change anything. They can fantasize all they like and have achieved only a comforting, marijuana-stoked friendship — and the satisfaction of having told Hart he’s a “sexist egotistical lying hypocritical bigot” in their dreams at least.
Ultimately, of course, they take a far more aggressive revenge on Hart, but only as a result of accident, misinformation, and misadventure. Even when they finally kidnap him to keep him from sending them to jail, discover he’s guilty of embezzlement, and seek out proof, the scenes have a goofy, picaresque feel.
But the women achieve something important while they’ve got Hart strung up and away from the office nevertheless: they make their workplace more humane. With Doralee’s ability to forge his signature, they create a blanket equal pay policy, a day care center, give employees the ability to work flexible hours, and allow some workers to share a full-time job. Less radically, they also paint the place and grant everyone permission to personalize workspaces with photos.
So this is “militant,” circa 1980: a film in which none of the women becomes CEO or chops off anyone’s balls, but instead perks the place up with some cheery paint and secretly improves the office’s efficiency by 20% without getting credit for it. See what I mean? We need some kind of time capsule to go back to find how someone like Canby could find himself so alarmed by the implications of female empowerment in Nine to Five. I wonder how Canby might have responded to all the whoop-ass in Charlie’s Angels (2000)?
Don’t get me wrong: I love this film and can understand perfectly how its campy delights, like John Waters’ cult classic Hairspray (1988), gave it such a healthy revival as a Broadway musical later on. All this huffing and puffing has to do with its apparent reputation at the time as being a feminist milestone — a reputation that’s difficult to reconstruct now. Maybe in 30 years we’ll shake our heads at the hubbub over 2011’s Bridesmaids (whoa! women can be funny? and men will file out to see a film about women?) in the same way.
In the end, it’s probably a remarkable thing that a film compared to Soviet propaganda in 1980 can look so utterly restrained in 2013. For my own part, I’m going to hunt down a way to slip in “a sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” as a descriptor into one of my conversations over the next two or three days — simply as a tribute to Violet, Doralee, and Judy.
I haven’t re-watched Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise since it opened in theaters, so I’d forgotten how terrible it is at the beginning. And not just the beginning. Major Plot Turns are so heavily foreshadowed that a better word might be forestomped. Men are so evil — and Thelma’s taste in them so spectacularly bad — that you feel your vagina tightening up to shut that whole thing down. In short, though I’d begun watching with the plan to celebrate Callie Khouri’s script, I quickly started to itch for something to distract me.
But that’s the thing about this film. An great film gets birthed out of the head of a more mediocre film, and it rises like Athena through some great scenes that defy all the logic imposed early on. This isn’t so much a female buddy movie as a makeover movie — a movie about before and after.
We all remember this great shot: Thelma (Geena Davis) and Louise (Susan Sarandon) posing for a selfie as they head out. This shot encapsulates the important differences between the two women: Louise’s persnickety neatness (her scarf worn like a snood, her lipstick), Thelma’s propensity to live recklessly (the blue eyeshadow, the impractical sundress).
They’re good friends, but underlying their friendship is all that stuff that makes friendships between women hard. Louise can be disapproving; Thelma can be childish, asking for permission from the stronger characters around her. The film’s first act focuses on the breakdown of this relationship.
At first it seems as if Thelma’s impetuousness and childishness will be the end of them. It’s bad enough that her cartoonishly boorish husband (Christopher McDonald, above) probably won’t give her permission to go away for the weekend with Louise, so she just runs out, taking along a handgun that she pulls, gingerly, from a bedside drawer. “I’ve had it up to my ass with sedate,” she proclaims from the passenger seat, and the movie waves a Giant Red Flag at us so we know something bad’s gonna happen.
You can’t help but identify with Louise in these early scenes. When the shit starts to hit the fan, Louise is the one who takes charge, protects her friend, and finds an exit strategy. But we can also see that her solutions mask old traumas. When Thelma is nearly raped by a bubba named Harlan in a roadside honkytonk, Louise uses the gun to rescue her — but when he calls her a bitch, she whips around and nails him in the heart with a bullet, and they run away.
The film’s middle act traces a shift in the women’s relationship after they escape. Thelma still makes spectacularly bad choices — not least of which is hooking up with an adorable if oily grifter/ hitchhiker named J.D. (Brad Pitt) who steals all their money — but she also begins to transform.
There’s a beautiful moment at the film’s midpoint, as a disheveled, traumatized Louise sits in the Thunderbird convertible in a parking lot, waiting for Thelma to return from the convenience store across the street. Everything has gone wrong, and it shows on her face. But then she locks eyes with an older woman inside the restaurant, a woman with a careworn face and a big helmet of hair. The film just allows them to look at each other, sharing an indescribable connection that you can’t help but ascribe to their mutual understanding of the burdens women carry. The scene breaks when Thelma careens out of the store that she’s just robbed — using J.D.’s script for such situations — and the two go roaring back down the road.
That delicate scene of mutual recognition opens the film’s final act, which encompasses a set of emotions that are difficult to convey neatly. No longer does Louise need to carry Thelma or clean up her messes; their shared outlaw status has transformed their relationship. Even as they race for the Mexican border, their relationship has a new feeling of possibility that mirrors the open sky. I don’t quite know how to explain this mood in the film, except to say that men have been squelching and molding and constraining women for so many centuries that no one, no one, really knows what they might do if they evaded that constraint completely — and the final third of Thelma and Louise reveals one version of what might happen when women free themselves.
How perfect, then, that this part of the film takes place in Monument Valley, and part of it during a quiet night. They coast through the eerie, glowing, open space, hardly speaking.
“I know. I know just what you mean,” Louise responds.
“I don’t remember ever feeling this awake,” Thelma says. Moments like that — perfect filmic moments that combine spare dialogue, scenery, and movement — explain how Callie Khouri’s script earned such praise.
How can such a story end? After all this time the ending still feels precarious. On the one hand, the implausibly sympathetic detective (Harvey Keitel) screams at the FBI, “How many times do they have to be fucked over?” — a line that rings as false as it did 20 years ago. On the other hand there’s that kiss, which still feels as radical as it did in 1991. As they sit in the Thunderbird knowing that there are only two (bad) options, and Thelma says, “Let’s keep going,” their kiss becomes a statement of mutual love that has gone beyond the usual worldly confines of sex or friendship.
Ultimately that’s why Thelma and Louise has the reputation it does: not for the ham-fisted opening act, or even for Brad Pitt’s abs while he wields a hair dryer like a pistol, but for the way the film sheds its skin to become something we’ve never seen before.
It’s not worth our time comparing this to other female buddy pictures because this defined one side of the field — it starts out with clichés from the domineering husband to the rape scene to the corny-funny lines (Thelma aiming a gun at a guy: “My husband wasn’t sweet to me, and look how I turned out”), but it transcends them to do something that still confounds description. Even as it gestures to the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), it also does something that men’s Westerns never could.
Before and after. Perhaps this is not only the quintessential female buddy picture, but also the greatest makeover movie in history.
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.