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Bridesmaids (2011) was well received by critics and audiences alike, lauded for its ability to prove that women could “be funny”. However, the credit that the film received was mostly focused around female portrayal of traditionally masculine humour: vulgar sexual innuendo, the famous diarrhoea scene, and drunken mishaps. While these aspects of Bridesmaids should be applauded, the creation of realistic, flawed relationships between female friends is the true success of Bridesmaids.
To many, Bridesmaids showcases some more eccentric female characters, but the central focus of the wedding prevents the film from escaping the heteronormative marital goals of the ‘woman’s film’. While I agree that Bridesmaids doesn’t completely deconstruct the patriarchal traditions of the female friendship film, I think that it shows significant growth in the genre. Rather than placing men at the centre of the narrative, it uses friendship among women to encourage personal growth.
In her book In the Company of Women: Contemporary Female Friendship Films, Karen Hollinger studies the history of the “woman’s movie” genre. Her exploration of the female friendship films of the 1930s and ‘40s is interesting when compared to Bridesmaids. Hollinger’s study explores how relationships between women have been presented in Hollywood throughout history, mapping the changes and consistencies between generations. Hollinger’s exploration of 1930s and ‘40s female friendship films was particularly interesting as it represents the beginning of the genre that Bridesmaids would later reinvent. Focusing upon “the conflict between marriage and career or…love and money,” Hollinger exposes how little these films actually centre upon female friendship. They instead use stereotypes of envious, selfish, competitive women fighting over men, and resolving their problems by comfortably settling into married life. Films like A Letter to Three Wives (1942) used conflict within female friendships to construct an idealised image of the male-female relationship, failing to develop female characters outside of their roles as wives and mothers.
Bridesmaids both conforms to and opposes this traditional structure of the female friendship film. Set around the preparation of Lillian’s (Maya Rudolph) wedding, Bridesmaids is rooted in traditions of marriage. Not only is Lillian getting married, but the majority of the other bridesmaids are also married, leaving only Annie (Kristen Wiig) and Megan (Melissa McCarthy) as single outsiders that inevitably conform to heteronormative social pressures by the end of the film. I feel as though many opportunities to broaden examples of female experience were lost by neatly coupling up every bridesmaid by the end. Most significantly, Annie’s relationship with Officer Rhodes (Chris O’Dowd) is shown as the final success of Annie’s growth, as if she is not complete without a man by her side. Even Megan, the most nonconformist character in the film, ends up in a relationship by the end—apparently her incredibly well paid job and pack of puppies is not fulfilling enough. It seems that the traditional chick flick trope of problems caused and solved by men, an issue found in films such as Sex and the City and Bridget Jones’s Diary, just won’t quit. However, while Bridesmaids may be caught thematically in the traditional marital structure of the female friendship film, to say that “relationships between women serve merely as a backdrop for a central male-female interaction” is incorrect. Instead, Annie’s journey (and the journey of every other female character in the film) is nurtured and motivated by the imperfectly perfect friendship at the core of this movie.
Heidi Wilkins, a feminist film academic, notes how even within the conservative norms of marriage and femininity, films such as Bridesmaids “reveal alternative dialogues, choices and meanings that exist for women…who even while opting for ‘conservative norms’…are free to redefine the boundaries of the choices they make.” Marriage is not presented as universally idyllic in the film, and Rita (Wendi McLendon-Covey), Helen (Rose Byrne), and Becca (Ellie Kemper) all express a lack of sexual and emotional fulfilment within their own marriages. By placing the husbands of these women on the sidelines of the narrative, they are allowed to pursue self-reflection and development on their own terms. They confide in each other, finding the community and companionship that they were craving.
This focus on female relationships is apparent in the childhood friendship between Annie and Lillian. While the narrative may be structured around the countdown to Lillian’s wedding day, her relationship with Dougie is hardly mentioned. Instead an emphasis is placed on her friendship with Annie—as they discuss sex loudly in a local coffee shop, share memories of childhood, and workout together in the park. The importance of this relationship is shown in Annie’s downfall. She tries to constantly one up Helen for fear of losing her dearest friend, Annie’s rock bottom moment isn’t moving in with her mother, nor is it losing her job or breaking up with Rhodes, the pivotal moment of personal change in Annie’s life is when she loses Lillian. After Annie ruins Lillian’s bridal-shower she sinks into depression, lounging on the couch and finally contemplating where it all went wrong. If Annie’s conflict with Lillian causes her funk, it is Megan that abruptly drags her out of it, quite literally kicking and screaming. Megan’s story of personal growth and fortitude slaps Annie around the face with the message: “you’re your problem…and also your solution.” It is here, at her lowest point when she feels that she has lost it all. Megan’s friendship shows Annie that she’s not quite as alone as she thought she was, and that to reconcile with the person she loves most she must swallow her pride and become the friend that both she and Lillian deserve. Whereas films like A Letter to Three Wives used female relationships to contextualize and bolster male-female relations, Bridesmaids places friendship in the foreground and applies the lessons of trust, compassion, and companionship to male-female relationships in the background.
Bridesmaids isn’t the perfect feminist chick flick. It doesn’t tear down constructions of marriage and patriarchal tradition, it isn’t a political statement on the liberation of women, but it doesn’t conform to its 1930s and ‘40s predecessors either. The modern family of strong, developed female characters that are created in this film drag each other down and back up again. While they head towards conservative marriage norms, this messy group of women provide genuine support for each other. Bridesmaids is about more than a wedding, and its skilful cultivation of individual female characters provides them (and us) with the self-reflection they need before sharing their journey with husbands and partners.
Featured Image Source: Megan Shepherd