Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Ten steps forward, one step back

Last Thursday, I wrote about why Bridesmaids is a movie that redefines the role of women in film today and why we, therefore, must all get behind it and see it.

As I said then, the movie does this by:

1) avoiding the cliches of the rom-com/chick flick,
2) focusing on the friendships of women instead of a love story between a man and a woman,
3) thereby creating a new genre (the female version of the bromance),
4) passing the Bechdel test,
5) featuring actresses who are not A-listers
6) and women who of all sizes
7) who talk about sex
8) and other real things and
9) are also fully developed characters.
Finally and just as importantly,
10) the film was written by two women—Kristin Wiig and her former Groundlings castmate Annie Mumolo (pictured below).
But what I didn't talk about is the one thing the movie gets desperately wrong.

As I indicated last week when I said that there was more to say about her, this misstep has to do with Melissa McCarthy's character, Megan, who is also the sister of the groom.

Before I saw the film (or any portion of it), I was thrilled that Melissa McCarthy was part of the cast. I loved her on Gilmore Girls, and even though I'm not a fan of her new sitcom, Mike & Molly, I think she's an outstanding actress. And I am happy that her performance in Bridesmaids is getting the positive attention it deserves. But . . .

. . . when I first saw McCarthy in the previews (and on the big screen), I was horrified. The people who made Bridesmaids took an adorable woman . . .
and made her look plain, manly, and mostly unattractive . . .
Not only that, they made her character into a clown who routinely acts the part of the fool and who inappropriately hits on the in-flight air marshall, saying things to him like, "You feel that heat? It's coming from my undercarriage."

The message is clear—a big woman can't hit on a man in a movie (or be in a movie at all) unless we are allowed to laugh at her doing so.

Admittedly, this problem is counteracted to some degree by the fact that McCarthy's character is one of the more well adjusted and confident people in the film, and she's also the voice of reason—she's the one who goes to Kristin Wiig's Annie when she hits bottom and convinces her that she needs to change her life. But that moment still happens inside the bubble of Megan's crazy antics—she brings her nine puppies—yes, nine!—when she rescues Annie from her wallowing and then insists on giving Annie a ridiculous body-slam-type hug before she leaves, reinforcing the message that this character cannot really be taken seriously.

There is a long history of making the "fat" person the funny guy in movies, a history that goes back to classic comedians like John Candy, John Belushi, Chris Farley, Jason Alexander, John Goodman, and Roseanne, and continues today with current comedians such as Kevin James, Larry the Cable Guy, Jonah Hill, and the pre-diet Seth Rogan among others. In fact, in our society, one of the only ways it is acceptable to see big people on the big or small screen is if they're cracking jokes. Or if people are laughing at them.

And, to be honest, I had hoped that a movie that spends so much time redefining how we see women in film would not have given into this cliche. Not only is it cheap and easy humor, it's also rather offensive.

At the same time, I think it would be foolish to focus on this one problem—even though it's a real problem—and ignore all the good that Bridesmaids does for women.

The bottom line is that this movie is good for women—women of all sizes. Yes, the writers made a mistake by depicting McCarthy's character as the butt of most of its jokes, but it did so many other things right that I have to believe it will help all of us—big and small—in the long run.


  1. Darn. I almost wish you didn't have a point here. In my defense, I suspect I would have found McCarthy's character more offensive if she didn't have a chance to display her pretty, adorable rom-com side on Mike & Molly and Gilmore Girls. Part of the delight of watching her in Bridesmaids is the shock of seeing her so play it so down and dirty after those squeaky-clean TV roles.

    I also have to say she's a fucking BRILLIANT physical comedian, along the lines of, yes, Chris Farley and John Belushi. That her weight is played for laughs is part of our humor culture that may not be tied specifically to gender. And, to repeat my earlier point, McCarthy gets to play it both ways: she's sweet and sexy in Mike & Molly, and a coarse heavyweight in Bridesmaids. Did Chris Farley or John Belushi ever get to play hot and sexy? Never. So she's got one up on them.

    Wanda Ball

  2. Thanks for the intelligent response, Wanda!

    I love McCarthy and was so happy to see her cast in the film but gasped in horror when I first saw her on the screen. At that moment, I decided to let go of that frustration and focus on what the movie did right. McCarthy is an amazing actress and, you're right, an amazing physical comedian. I'm hoping this opens many doors for her. And you make a good point that she has had some wonderful roles--too bad they were all on TV. Television is clearly leading the way in terms of accepting people of all varieties with shows like Glee, Huge, and Mike&Molly. Film needs to catch the hell up!

  3. I agree: TV leads the way, in physical diversity and more. Just think about how trailblazing _Roseanne_ was about class and sex and marriage. Hollywood still hasn't caught up.


  4. Molly - did you see McCarthy's recent interview in EW on the role? I take your point (above), but there's also some interesting bits in the interview (she showed up for her first audition wearing cropped pants, pearls, a carpal tunnel brace and said she was channeling Guy Fieri from Food Network) :)


  5. I did see that, Kristi, and I thought it was fascinating that she was the one who decided to dress Megan that way. And I saw the movie again and cannot get over how good she is--just amazing! I love that McCarthy's finally getting the attention she deserves, but I still wish that the biggest girl in the movie hadn't also been the biggest clown.