August 18th, 2011

Dirty, sexy, funny

What the rise of raunchy female-driven comedies says about the changing view of gender roles

By Hong Xinyi

One of the nice things about working at AWARE is the opportunity to meet the many bright young women who take up internships here in order to pursue their interest in gender issues.

It was lunch hour one day in the office when the conversation turned to Sex And The City. “I never liked that show,” said an AWARE intern, a university student.

In addition to the series’ rampant promotion of consumerism as empowerment, she was also irked by how, at one point, the character Carrie Bradshaw (played by Sarah Jessica Parker) had an affair with a married ex-boyfriend. “They tried to make it seem like it was because he was her true love, but if you’re a woman who respects yourself you just wouldn’t put yourself in that situation,” said my colleague, quite firmly.

You don’t have to be a feminist, of course, to dislike this particular pop-culture creation. I’ve met many women who simply cannot stand Carrie’s materialism, whininess, and those godawful puns. And I do understand where they are coming from.

Still, I’ve always liked Carrie. I like how unlikeable she often was. I like that she had bad habits that she didn’t really want to kick, for a while anyway. I like the way her romantic delusions co-existed with a rich lode of sincere cynicism. I like that she loved her friends but wasn’t always good to them, and that the tensions and evolution of these friendships were documented with as much, if not more, care than her romantic relationships. I like that, in an industry where even the best actresses have to wrestle for screen-time, we got to watch Carrie and her friends grow older and wrinklier and fall apart and put themselves together again and again over the course of six TV seasons and 2 movies.

I like that she often screwed up – the way even self-respecting feminists can, from time to time, because life doesn’t always care about your best intentions; the way not many female protagonists are allowed to, because so many of them are still written as one-dimensional characters. As far as I know, Carrie is the only female lead in a mainstream pop-culture franchise in recent memory who has stated – wistfully yet matter-of-factly – that she has had an abortion. Her aforementioned affair may not have been the act of a self-respecting woman, but it was several other things that seem, to me at least, more interesting than the depiction of female moral perfection: well-written, honest and, at times, painfully funny – the anatomy of a bad decision.

Much has been made of how the recent comedy Bridesmaids has surpassed the 2008 Sex And The City movie as the top-grossing R-rated female comedy of all time. Comedian and co-screenwriter Kristen Wiig stars as down-on-her-luck baker Annie, who has to organize pre-wedding festivities for her recently-engaged best friend. Madcap mayhem ensues, including a scene featuring the female cast vomiting and having diarrhea while dressed in expensive bridal gowns; several one-night-stands gone woefully, hilariously wrong; and lots and lots of potty-mouthed punchlines.

Many film critics have in fact taken Bridesmaids’ crudeness as evidence of its feminist stripes, in marked contrast to the critical drubbing heaped on the more conventionally ‘girly’ 2010 Sex And The City 2. Slate describes Bridesmaids as “a giddy feminist manifesto that responds to the perennially circulated head-scratcher ‘Can women really be funny?’ with a whoopee-cushion fart”. The New York Times thinks the movie proves that “women can go aggressive laugh to aggressive-and-absurd laugh with men”.

Taken with a recent spate of raunchy comedic female roles that includes Cameron Diaz as an unrepentant gold-digger in Bad Teacher and Jennifer Aniston as a sex-crazed dentist in Horrible Bosses, Bridesmaids’ gross-out style seems emblematic of a generational shift in tone for female-driven comedy.

After all, what could be further away from the arch, cutesy tone and preening consumerism of Sex And The City than Bridesmaids’ deliberate toilet humour and off-kilter comedic rhythms?

So – silly movies about shoes and shopping are out and silly movies about women behaving as badly as men are supposed to are in? Why is one supposed to be better than the other? Why is this considered progress?

In her 2006 book Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women & The Rise Of Raunch Culture, American journalist Ariel Levy described the phenomenon of women practicing what she considered to be reverse-sexism:

“We decided long ago that the Male Chauvinist Pig was an unenlightened rube, but the Female Chauvinist Pig has risen to a kind of exalted status. She is post-feminist. She is funny. She gets it. She doesn’t mind cartoonish stereotypes of female sexuality, and she doesn’t mind a cartoonishly macho response to them…Raunch provides a special opportunity for a woman who wants to prove her mettle. It’s in fashion, and it is something that has traditionally appealed exclusively to men and actively offended women, so producing it or participating in it is a way both to flaunt your coolness and to mark yourself as different, tougher; looser; funnier – a new sort of loophole woman who is ‘not like other women’, who is instead ‘like a man’. Or, more precisely, like a Female Chauvinist Pig.”

There are ways in which this thesis can be applied to the glee that has greeted the brand of raunchy female humour currently in vogue. In one sense, yes, it’s great that it is now acceptable – and, crucially, profitable – for women to behave in certain outrageous ways on-screen. But the fact remains that in many glowing reviews, this behavior – crudeness, aggression – is still automatically coded as ‘masculine’ and therefore worthy of emulation. Would a male-driven comedy with characters behaving in stereotypically ‘feminine’ ways be given similar approbation?

More importantly, this focus on raunch is an over-simplification of what is happening to female-driven comedy today.

Levy was writing at a time when Britney Spears hadn’t yet shaved her head and Paris Hilton was one of the biggest celebrities on the scene. There’s been a shift in pop culture since then. For one thing, today’s It girls are of a distinctly different breed. From sullen Kristen Stewart to sarcastic Emma Stone, there are few up-and-comers who fit the conventional sexpot mold.

For another, female comedians like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Bridesmaids’ Wiig have become some of the most beloved and sought-after performers in their industry. It is not coincidental to their success that these funny ladies, like most comedians, write and produce their own material, and raunch is just one of the many different tools they use to craft their characters.

The commercial success and cultural resonance of Bridesmaids’ bawdy women may in fact be due not just to their outrageous comedy (which is, don’t get me wrong, very very funny), but to the fact that these characters are written as exaggerations but not stereotypes. Unlike their counterparts in the cookie-cutter romantic comedies of recent years, these caricatures may be broad, but they are not banal.

Which is to say, really, that Bridesmaids is more like Sex And The City than you might expect. Raunchy is just one of the many things these women are allowed to be. They can be materialistic and whiny, yes; and sometimes confused, selfish, and competitive; and also loyal, perceptive and brave. They are not perfect, because they are not idealized – they contain multitudes. We all do.

There is a brief but pensive little scene in Bridesmaids that I remember more fondly than the vomit-diarrhea one, during which Annie – who lost all her savings when her bakery went under during the recession – makes a single cupcake. She mixes the batter, fills the mold, watches the oven and then pipes on petals of frosting – the sequence is an elegant, efficient way of expressing the inner world of this character, of showing us her particular form of creativity, her ambition, and her sadness at losing her way. Showing a woman doing something that she cares about, that she’s good at, in a compelling way that furthers the story – how often do you see that in a movie? She also reacts to the news that her best friend is getting married with a clichéd blend of Martha Stewart-style decorum and Oprah Winfrey-level enthusiasm in her voice, even as her eyes grow wide with… what is that look? Panic? Loss? Envy? How often do you see this cocktail of emotions in a female-driven comedy structured around a wedding?

You will probably not be surprised to learn that I like Annie. I don’t like her as much as Carrie – but then, I haven’t had a chance to really get to know her yet. I hear that Bridemaids 2 is almost certainly happening though.

The writer is a freelance journalist and a communications consultant for AWARE.

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