Women get rowdy: Movie audiences attracted to actresses behaving badly in big summer comedies
Kristen Wiig (left) and Rose Byrne are shown in a scene from "Bridesmaids." Wiig co-wrote the film, which features her as a not-so-honorable maid of honor.
In America's movie theaters, this has been the summer of women behaving badly:
Kristen Wiig as an underachieving maid of honor who trashes her friend's bridal shower in "Bridesmaids"; Cameron Diaz as a pot-smoking middle school teacher in "Bad Teacher"; Jennifer Aniston as a predatory dentist harassing her male assistant in "Horrible Bosses."
Still to come: Anna Faris as a hard-partying slacker with a long list of exes in September's "What's Your Number?"
The women characters in all these films swear, drink and leap into the sack with gusto, as well as engage in potty humor and, perhaps most radically for Hollywood, deliver the funniest lines, few of them printable here.
Their success at the box office -- "Bridesmaids" has grossed more than $200 million worldwide -- has ignited debate within the industry and in cultural circles about the raunchy new high, or low, that women are hitting in screen comedy right now.
For many viewers and the actresses themselves, these anti-heroines, by emulating the crudeness that long has spelled box office gold for men in R-rated comedies such as "The Hangover" and "Knocked Up," represent a refreshing break from the sexy potential one-night stands, perky potential girlfriends or shrill potential ex-wives women frequently play in mainstream comedies.
But after the box office receipts are tallied, the question lingers: Is the right to crack a flatulence joke a progressive sign of loosening gender strictures or of the devolution of the broader culture?
Take pressure off
For women under 40 in particular, who grew up with not only the option but the responsibility of breadwinning, as well as images of actresses saving the world in short-shorts, there's a relief in seeing female sloth and imperfection on screen.
"I'm very intrigued by playing women who are much more like men: messy and sloppy," said Anna Faris, who at 34 was born after Roe vs. Wade, Title IX and the TV premiere of "Charlie's Angels."
"Young men that I know that I went to college with ... they kind of were losers. ... I think the reaction to that was a lot of type-A women: the perfect shoes, the perfect job, the baby, the husband, just driven, driven, driven. Not allowed to screw up. I just want to see the women that screw up," Faris added.
Wiig, co-writer as well as star of "Bridesmaids," noted, "On some levels, women and men may find different things funny that relate to their own sex. One thing we wanted ... was ... to get some sort of a female language in there.
"The biggest compliment I can get is people relating to some aspect of the character," Wiig said.
Not everyone, though, sees actresses following the crudeness or indolence of male comics as a sign that women are enjoying new cultural freedom.
"Women cross-dressing our kind of humor as male humor is the worst possible idea," said Gina Barreca, 54, author of "They Used to Call Me Snow White ... but I Drifted: Women's Strategic Use of Humor" and professor of English and feminist theory at the University of Connecticut.
"Is this a great new feminist assertion of the self that says, 'Yes ... women belch, women get drunk? That Cameron Diaz being a disgrace, isn't that fabulous?' " Barreca said. "The feminist ideal was not that there was going to be equity of stupidity. Finding the lowest common denominator is not what everybody was marching for."
Camille Paglia, professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, who has written extensively (and sometimes with contempt) about feminism, says that physicality is not mere coincidence but expresses the chafing some women feel about societal expectations of responsibility and virtue.
"What slapstick expresses is a kind of freedom of the body," Paglia said. "You don't care about decorum, you don't care how you're looked at. If slapstick is coming back now for women, is it not a function of a sense of relief, letting it all hang out in this crazy physical way? Young, white, middle-class women feel very constrained right now."
In 1927, for instance, Mae West's hit Broadway play, "Sex," was advertised with a publicity still of the bosomy actress towering over an apparently defenseless man sprawled in a chair.
West's suggestive shimmy in the show landed her seven days in jail on a charge of "corrupting the morals of youth."
"Virtue has its own reward," West would say years later, after a career of conspicuously choosing vice, "but no sale at the box office."
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I think Wiig and Faris are idealizing it a little. I think West is the one who is being honest here with her quote... "Virtue has its own reward, but no sale at the box office."
That's the truth, at it comes from someone who turned heads similarly (or more so) in the 1920s.
I also think that professor, Paglia, is resentful toward feminism (I don't disagree). Calling crude humor slapstick is only half true. I wouldn't compare Bridesmaids to Three Stooges, by any means. Sure there is slapstick in Adam Sandler's films and the Hangover films, but that's only a piece of the pie. There's also randomness and crude jokes. You can't write it all off as "slapstick." But slapstick is certainly part of it.
I think what I'm after is just honesty with it. It is what it really is, and we shouldn't claim it's something else.