Won’t somebody please think of the women?

Friday June 24th 2011

With the other ‘big hitters’ consisting of a British prison drama, a Kings of Leon concert movie and a handful of documentaries that will be on DVD in a week’s time, there’s an open goal waiting for Bridesmaids at the UK box office this weekend. Its success will be lauded by the nation’s critics, who rightly celebrated this funny, charming, intelligent comedy and its tour de force lead performance from Kristen Wiig.

Sadly, what seemed to most impress critics (both male and female) was that anything funny, charming or intelligent could have emanated from an organism in possession of a vagina. ‘Women can do gross-out too!’ they proclaimed. ‘This is nothing at all like Bride Wars!’ For some it seemed that the entire concept of a woman being funny — you know, a real woman, not Jo Brand — was so astonishing that the only possible course of action was to reach for the thesaurus and locate every synonym for ‘feminist’ in the English language.

Some might call it patronising to congratulate a group of professional female writers, actors and comedians for simply managing to equal their male counterparts, but those who did find it necessary to take this approach stressed that they were doing so only to give the film ‘a fair chance’. In their eyes the film needed protecting from some perceived patriarchal threat – a hoard of male detractors who were apparently insisting that women couldn’t (or shouldn’t) hope to equal men in the comedy stakes. But where were these men? I certainly hadn’t seen any of them, and I was starting to suspect that perhaps they didn’t exist at all.

Enter Chris Tookey. In an article in today’s Daily Mail, the notorious bullying victim squares off against lovable bigot Jan Moir in a battle to decide whether Bridesmaids is ‘filth’ or ‘fun’. Taking up residence in the filth corner, Tookey effortlessly makes Moir look almost reasonable (which takes some doing) as he sets about issuing some of his most blatantly offensive mandates yet, all in response to the film that he found…

‘… tasteless and infinitely depressing, both in itself and for what it says about how women are being portrayed in modern films.’

He begins his piece with a series of rhetorical questions, the first of which is cleverly disguised as an issue of taste rather than gender:

‘Does the idea of women in expensive bridesmaid dresses vomiting over each other and answering calls of nature publicly and humiliatingly in the street strike you as side‑splittingly hilarious?’

Now, regardless of your opinion on gross-out humour (and personally I thought the scene in question was one of the worst in the film), there’s no question that for Tookey the outrage here is innately linked to the fact that it’s women partaking in transgressive behaviour rather than men. After all, his positive reviews for Dumb and Dumber (‘I cried with laughter’) and American Pie (‘sparky wit’) suggest that there is room for distaste in mainstream comedy after all. He even mentions the latter in his Bridesmaids review, and in a rare moment of self-awareness notes that…

‘[American Pie] had the excuse of being about hormonally-challenged males, and invited us to cringe along with their shortcomings.’

So I think it’s fair to say that it’s not the content of the film that bothers Chris, it’s the fact that it’s all happening in the vicinity of the womenfolk. Carried along by his questionable sense of moral righteousness (he’s careful to disown ‘misogynistic’ films like The Hangover: Part II along the way), Tookey plays directly into the hands of those who seek to make Bridesmaids a feminist manifesto of sorts, by extolling the virtues of an image of femininity that might be offensive if it wasn’t so ludicrously outdated:

‘Annie is supposed to be likeable, although she is having meaningless sex with a monstrous egotist (Mad Men‘s Jon Hamm) and doesn’t appreciate a local policeman (Chris O’Dowd) who is much nicer and is besotted with her.’

What he’s essentially describing here is the plot of every romantic comedy ever made, but obviously because it’s a woman being interested in two different men rather than the reverse, it’s a shocking portrait of the ‘sluttishness’ (his word, not mine) that’s so rife in today’s society. I bet you Wiig’s character has had pre-marital sex too. And she probably votes, the whore.

Later he makes some equally illegitimate complaints about films like The House Bunny and He’s Just Not That Into You, but they’re so blatantly irrelevant in the context of a Bridesmaids review that to give them further attention here would be pointlessly diverting.

He concludes that…

‘… in order to get made in modern Hollywood, [Bridesmaids] presents an astoundingly repellent view of the sex as immature, self-loathing and mentally unbalanced’

… which, if you’ve seen the film, can only be read as wilfully misleading. Each word in this glaringly misogynistic summation is essentially a compliment that might be paid to a male-led film, twisted into a criticism. So where their male equivalents are ‘flawed’, these female characters are ‘immature’; instead of ‘self-aware’, they’re ‘self-loathing’; and instead of ‘complex’, they’re ‘mentally unbalanced’.

For those who seek to make the film a gender statement, be it ‘you go girls’ or ‘back in the kitchen’, Bridesmaids will always be inseparable from its societal context – a pressure that male comedies are rarely forced to accommodate. And while Tookey’s brazenly offensive diatribe might be more immediately shocking than a five-star review that stresses just how ‘impressive’ the whole thing is, neither are doing the film any favours.

If you do see Bridesmaids this weekend (and I highly recommend you do) why not just go along, enjoy it, come home and not write a gender politics essay on its treatment of women in comedy? If there’s anything truly ‘refreshing’ about the film, it’s that it doesn’t come with an agenda. It’s almost as if they just want to make people laugh. And while forcing Chris Tookey onto his high horse is always a good source of humour, I suspect it’s not exactly what they were going for.