Commentary Media

Why We All (Well, A Lot of Us) Loved “Bridesmaids”

Sarah Seltzer

While far from perfect, this bawdy comedy with a heart proved that upending Hollywood cliches actually makes for a better movie.

Bridesmaids shouldn’t have had to inspire a feminist e-mail campaign. It shouldn’t have been an activist choice to go see a silly movie featuring an over-exposed SNL comedian. And it shouldn’t have mattered so much that the movie performed well at the box office. But because Hollywood remainds deeply sexist in myriad ways (see this piece from Roseanne Barr for confirmation), all those things were true.

And Bridesmaids itself, a work of film whose centerpiece comedic moment, suggested by Hollywood bromance king Judd Apatow, is an infamous scene involving graphic food poisoning at a bridal salon–shouldn’t have been a revelation. It shouldn’t have made me, and many of the women I’ve spoken with, feel such a strange sensation as we watched, such an intense feeling of gratitude for the writers and director

But all these things were true, too. For the first time since I watched Juno (and that movie’s problematic treatment of abortion ruined the experience in some ways for me) I had the feeling that the screenwriters of a mainstream comedy were talking to me, “woman to woman.” And I detest Judd Apatow’s films and often find Kristen Wiig’s SNL acting irritating. This movie was not, as advertised, “The Hangover” with boobs. It was instead a laugh-fest with a heart, and even as it exaggerated everything for comic effect, its characters were believable.

I certainly do not believe that men and women are intrinsically different, nor do I think that there exists some sort of a universal experience of womanhood that we can all relate to at the snap of our fingers. 

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No, rather I think that women, as they’re projected onscreen by a sexist industry, are not usualy real people. So when they do seem real, many of us will see ourselves in them (newsflash: this is the experience that white men have when they watch most movies). We’re so used to watching seductresses or shrews, adorable heroines who are “met-cute” by the right guy at the wrong time, sassy best friends or any of a host of stereotypes that we’re bowled over by a central female character who has an arc, and who has baggage, and who has an off-color sense of humor. This, in part, explains the wildly positive reaction to Bridesmaids

And surprise! By ignoring cliches, the movie actually works better–you don’t have to be well-versed in feminist theory to be dying for more than the same-old from Hollywood.

“Chick-flicks” or “rom-coms,” are usually overpopulated by women who move about in airy houses or apartments with floor-to-ceiling windows, impeccably dressed with smooth faces, save dimples, and whose “humanizing trait” is almost always frenetic perfectionism with a dash of clumsiness thrown in for good measure. As Tad Friend’s widely-circulated piece in the New Yorker on women in comedy notes (and a video from Nerve.com documents), this clumsiness is actually a “rule:”

“‘To make a woman adorable,’ one female successful screenwriter says, ‘you have to defeat her at the beginning… It’s as simple as making the girl cry, fifteen minutes into the movie.’ Relatability is based on vulnerability, which creates likeability. With male characters, smoking pot, getting drunk, and lying around watching porn is likeable; with females, the same conduct is hateful. So funny women must not only be gorgeous; they must fall down and then sob, knowing it’s all their fault.”  

And by gesturing at relatability with the shortcut of clumsiness, producers fail to create characters who resemble us at all. Thus, your typical heroines do not possess flaws like deep-seated insecurity, big mouths, aggression of the passive or plain variety, laziness, or a regular employment of substance abuse beyond a cocktail or two. 

Enter Annie, Bridesmaids’ protagonist who possesses every single one of these failings. She’s got a propensity for putting her foot in her mouth, she spends too much time feeling sorry for herself and moping, she can be both outright nasty and more subtly cutting, and yet she’s quite human. She’s had a spate of bad luck, which explains her bad behavior. She’s outrageously funny, which helps us forgive that bad behavior. And her tendency towards self-destruction is channelled in ways that women and men of all stripes can relate to. She acts out by getting in trouble in public, but also by ignoring good things that come her way, by taking her own creation, a gloriously over-the-top cupcake that’s a symbol of her love and talent, and diffidently shoving it down her throat. 

As played by a surprisingly toned down and believable Kristen Wiig, Annie experiences a long and hilarious meltdown with an understandable cause–it’s triggered when her best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph), at the onset of her wedding planning season introduces the miserable Annie to a new friend, a ridiculously wealthy, impeccably gorgeous, and “take-charge” type who seems programmed to make Annie feel wretched and inadequate in every way. This intruder threatens to further sever Annie from her friend and lifeline, Lillian, embarking on a new phase of life.

Annie’s friendship with Lillian has already been heralded across the internet as a victory, encapsulated in a small moment at the movie’s outset in which the two women talk sex in specific details, and smear food on their teeth over breakfast at a diner–like a scene from Sex in the City with less one-liners and more gentle joking. It’s endearingly intimate, as is their eventual reconciliation at the film’s end after a series of increasingly insane pratfalls, including the gross-out scene mentioned above (which I closed my eyes for part of, but a friend said she felt like was a celebration of the normalcy of the female body), another in which the two dueling friends of Lillian try to top each other with endless, deeply meaningful toasts, and a set-piece featuring a scared-of-flying Annie maxed out on tranquilizers and booze paying paranoid, intoxicated homage to a famous Twilight Zone episode, mid-flight to Vegas.

The film hits its audience’s funny-bones in every way possible: with slapstick, with ribald humor, with situational awkwardness, with clever repartee, and with a down-to-earth supporting cast, including Melissa McCarthy, already heralded as a scene-stealer. Bridesmaids’ plot avoids being unnecessarily cruel to Annie, even as it humiliates her. And the writers manage to capture the sweet intentions behind some wedding traditions while sending up, with a real wallop, the absurd excesses of the wedding-industrial complex, French designers, ruffles, champagne fountains and all. 

Annie reminds me a little bit of that other foul-mouthed, self-destructive icon of modern womanhood, Bridget Jones, but with a trajectory that focuses more on her repairing her friendship and overcoming her slump then on her love life (one should note, however that my male and female viewing companions were pleased with the male love interests, both the cad and the “good guy)”.

Let’s be clear. This mainstream, commercial film is far from perfect: the bridal party was way too white and unnecessarily hetero-normative. Still it’s about time that someone in Hollywood took on the joys and pitfalls of close female friendship in a broadly accessible way–it shouldn’t have felt so unprecedented, but it did.

Culture & Conversation Media

A Q&A With ‘Never Too Real’ Author Carmen Rita Wong on Why #WeNeedDiverseBooks

Ilana Masad

Rewire had a chance to chat with Wong about her experience finding a place for the work she wanted to create, and what the media often gets wrong when portraying Latina women and other women of color.

Carmen Rita Wong says the characters in her new novel, Never Too Real, are largely invisible in media, which is why she chose to tell their stories. The fictional work is about Latina women who are both struggling and successful in their various fields. Wong says she’s treating this writing project as a mission, a way to tell the story of women like her: Latina women and other women of color who exist in ways other than the stereotypes so often portrayed on television and in films.

Wong herself is a master of media: She’s written for countless outlets, been the host of her own TV show, written books on finance, and now, she’s turned to fiction.

Rewire had a chance to chat with Wong about her experience finding a place for the work she wanted to create, and what the media often gets wrong when portraying Latina women and other women of color.

Rewire: How did this novel come about?

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Carmen Rita Wong: My a-ha! moment came with my daughter; we were walking together and passed a bus stop with [a poster for] a show and she said, “Mom, that poster, all those women look like you. But why are they maids?”

My daughter’s frame of reference is very different from mine: She’s growing up more privileged and with a Black president, surrounded by family where she happens to be a blonde Latina while her cousins are Black Latinas. I waited tables alongside my mom to put myself through college, so I have a deep respect for every form of work. But it was definitely one of those things where you only see yourself reflected in one way—and that’s how I grew up, seeing Latinas being shown in one way; but this is not how I live, and not how my daughter lives, now.

That same month I was having a party, celebrating my wonderful, successful girlfriends. We all came up together, we’ve all supported each other, and we’re all women of color, mostly Latina. I looked around and wondered, how come nobody knows we exist?

So I thought, all right, you know what? Now’s the time. This has just got to get done. I’m in a position to do this, I need to do it. It was very much a mission; I didn’t approach it as a side project.

Rewire: Kirkus Reviews, a book review site, called Never Too Real a “multicultural edition of Sex and the City.” How would you characterize the book? Would you call it that?

CRW: I think that superficially that’s a nice, easy elevator pitch because there are four of these women, they’re glamorous, and they’re in New York City. I think that’s where the similarities pretty much end. The book goes a lot deeper than that. If you had to categorize it TV-wise, it’s a “dramedy”: There’s some lightheartedness, there’s some playfulness, some glamor, but it is really about real issues in your life as you try to do well, if you try to be the first generation to do better than the previous. I think that’s one of the uniting factors of these four women—they’re all … first [in their families] to be born in the United States, and grow up and finish college. And that’s an important bonding issue that makes it very different [from] Sex in the City.

Rewire: Diversity in literature is a widely-discussed issue in the literary community these days, with hashtags like #WeNeedDiverseBooks. Was it hard for you to find a place for your book, to publish it?

CRW: I don’t know—hard for some people is not hard for others. Let’s just say—my agent’s probably going to kill me—but my favorite rejection from a major publisher, which actually confirmed to me that I was on the right track, was (and I have it memorized): “We are not looking for aspirational in this market at this time.”

Rewire: They called it aspirational?

CRW: Exactly. So it was mildly crushing, and then I realized—I’m on it, I am so on it. Because these publishers, who are they, and what have they published? Books by white men. Yes, those publishers are powerful, and yes, they’re rich, but they don’t get it. They don’t see it. They don’t know we exist. What is “this market,” and what is “aspirational?”

When I was coming up in media, in publishing and magazines, I would hear from people, “Carmen, we know you want to get ahead, but we just don’t know what to do with you.” And that’s code. What it really means is, “Carmen, you’re a brown girl, and we can promote this white guy or girl, but we can’t promote you. We just don’t know what to do with you.” But they would never say that to a white male. They would never say, “You know what, Bob? We just don’t know what to do with you.” So to me that rejection letter was just like that.

I remember back in the ’90s, there was a really great push of [books] like Waiting to Exhale or Joy Luck Club. There was just a lot more in fiction about successful, multigenerational, multicultural families. It just was normal and it was not considered crazy. I think there was a trend, and it just became a different trend. And then there was a push for powerful stories, but stories of only one note, for a long time in Latino fiction. I can’t read that stuff, because I lived it already. I want to read stories that make me escape or make me inspired or make me feel heard.

Rewire: In the book, you introduce women who come from all walks of life and economic backgrounds, but they’re all upper-middle-class at the time of the narrative. Going back to your daughter seeing the poster of Latina women portrayed as maids, do you find that economic diversity is what’s often missing in popular and literary culture?

CRW: My book wasn’t as calculated as that, because this is my life, and these are my friends and the people I surround myself with. I think what I saw missing in these cultures was that niche [of successful Latina women].

Latinos in popular culture … I’ve watched it be a very hard process. For example, when I was in magazines, they tried to push me to the Spanish-language property, and I’d say that I don’t primarily speak in Spanish. Why can’t I be used in the English-dominant space? Why? Give me a reason why! And they’d have to say, “Well, because you’re Latina.” So? Latinos speak English! We’re Americans! If you were Black or Latina you’d have to be in that particular space and you weren’t allowed to exist in the general market. And as we’ve seen, and as we see now, that has changed a lot.

Rewire: How so?

CRW: We have huge growth in numbers, but also too, if you look at, for example, ShondaLand, [the production company] on ABC—it’s an example of an openness to seeing and consuming media from all cultures, whether it’s music or TV. I definitely feel that things have changed, there’s a big shift and a huge push now toward inclusion.

I think with social media too, you see the pressure of people saying, for example, #OscarsSoWhite. I grew up in a time when media was controlled by a small group of people and I’ve watched it change, morph, and transform. Fifteen years ago, when I was co-chair of the Hispanic Affinity Group at Time Inc., I was saying we’re here, we consume stuff in English, and you need to pay attention to us. When the census came out [proving what I had been saying], I said, the census, look at the census!

And still the dollars didn’t come in; but when social media happened, that’s when the money started coming in. And finally people started saying, “Oh, they’re, they’re quite vocal, they exist.” [Laughs.] But our ethnicity or color shouldn’t be our only draw. We’re here and have been here. What they’re seeing shouldn’t come as such a shock.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Culture & Conversation Family

Only Through Becoming a Parent Have I Been Able to Let Go of My Grief at Losing My Own

Sharona Coutts

Having a baby has brought me back to the present in the most profound way I could ever imagine.

Today is my 21st birthday, of sorts.

Twenty-one years ago today, my father died. Twenty-one years ago today, I watched the perspiration puddle in the dent below his Adam’s apple for the last time. I watched him lick his parched lips. I saw the crisp hospital sheets sag with his sweat—sweat from his poor body, riddled with cancer, emaciated, aged, and somehow bloated, all at the same time.

Days earlier, when I brought his dictaphone to the hospital, with the miniature tapes that used to go into answering machines, I held the recorder to his mouth and—because I, his 14-year-old baby girl, asked him to—he said, slowly, carefully, effortfully, while looking me straight in the eye: I love you, Sharona. I. Love. You.

For the last time.

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I was 14, and it was the end of childhood. Childhood had been ending for a while, during the months of illness, false hopes, and horrible disappointments. The tumors were in his kidneys, and they were growing. They were shrinking. They were back. They were in his chest, his brain. The radiation was working (“Look, my girl, they drew a target on my head!”); it wasn’t working. I learned gallows humor. I learned to pretend there was nothing unusual about finding my father marooned on the staircase at home, unable to make it to the top. Both of us choking back sobs as I said, “Wait, Dad. Wait,” and walked myself—calmly, steadily, like you’re meant to do when walking around a swimming pool—next door, and softly explained to our neighbor, Mr. Wood, that we needed his help. Alarm shadowed his eyes, and Mr. Wood grabbed his keys and my hand, and back we went to our house. The three of us sweated and grunted our way up the stairs, around the landing, into my parents’ room, and laid my dad in bed.

Then Mr. Wood—Tony, to my dad—stood there, awkward, silent and sad.

“I’ll see you round, Terry.”

“Yeah, see you round, Tony. Thanks mate.” Breathless. Relieved. Humiliated.

“Yeah, no worries, mate.” A hesitation. A shattering pause.

And he left, because Tony is a decent man, and he knew we needed to be alone.

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Iska Coutts / Rewire

People try so hard to be kind to grieving kids, but they’re bad at it. They don’t know how. They do things like invite you to the movies, but end up taking you to see Casper the Friendly Ghost. Then they’re speechless afterward, because what kind of an idiot takes a kid to see a movie about a little boy who died, the day after her father died?

Kind idiots. That’s who. We’re all idiots in the face of that sort of meaningless tragedy. Because it shouldn’t happen. And yet it does, all the time. And still, we don’t know what to say, or do. Or whether saying or doing are what’s called for, what’s wanted or needed—because we also find it so terribly hard to ask, and of course, how is a child supposed to know what she wants or needs, other than for none of it to be true?

It’s the powerlessness that does it, breaks your confidence in the order of the world. The helplessness. The total lack of agency. Oh, of course, you can fool yourself by talking yourself into and out of all sorts of mental and emotional contortions. This will make me stronger. The brightest candles burn out first. Ultimately, what reveals itself is that time is both the oppressor and the savior: You must wait out the grief, but you don’t know how long it will hold you hostage. And you don’t know how damaged you’ll be once it’s done with you. And there is very little you can do about any of it.

For me, it turns out, it took about 20 years. There were ten years of numbness, of deep denial. I was crushed, I remember, when Australia added a digit to the beginning of all phone numbers, some years after my dad died. I was distraught thinking that he wouldn’t know our phone number if he came back. If he came back. I caught myself in that delinquent thought. Consciously, you know these things—he’s dead, he’s gone, he will never, ever be back—but your subconscious rebels, riots even. In dreams, in daydreams, and sometimes, in little jabs that wind you as you go about your day. Your subconscious refuses: This loss, I will not accept.

The next ten years were a mix of depression, anxiety, and an all-encompassing bewilderment that these emotions were now cascading over me, unmitigated, untidy, unpredictable. I did and said things that I found excruciatingly embarrassing, because I could no longer hold myself under such tight, absolute control. Like water in an old pipe, the emotions had found ways to leak out at weak points. At times, I felt my structural integrity was compromised. I was, in short, afraid that I was about to collapse. Therapists would ask, “And what would happen if you did collapse?” and I would stare at them, in disbelief at the premise of the question: That will not happen. Cannot happen.

We are given a tiny sliver of time in which it is generally acceptable to display the symptoms of grief. Six weeks after the death of a loved one, few people will realize you are sad because of grief. Six years later—or 16 years—gushes of grief can seem mad and unhinged. You’ll get more sympathy for a broken bone than a broken heart. People will wonder: When will you “get over” the loss?

In writing personal pieces like these, there is always a judgment about what to say, and that is really about how much to hold back. I take the view that it is necessary to hold most of it back. Not for shame or fear, but because there is a province of the self that is sometimes better left untrammeled. It’s as if there are parts of the self that risk oxidation by exposure to the air; like a delicate, old artwork, you’d see them for the instant before they cracked and flaked away.

What I wanted to share here is a celebration. Not of my 21st birthday as a child of grief, but a different birthday: the birth of my daughter late last year. For me, it has only been through becoming a parent that I have been able to let go of the grief over my own parent.

Why?

Don’t I wish he were here to see me as a mother? To know his grandchild, to give her all the things I forbid him to give her, and to teach her dirty jokes that will lead teachers to place her in detention and make me laugh hysterically when I find out why?

Of course I do. Of course, of course.

But it’s not about that. It’s about a radical shift in outlook, and one that I suspect is a key to forcing grief to move out of the way, to the extent you can. Maybe just to move it enough so that some light gets past its shadow.

Having a baby has brought me back to the present in the most profound way I could ever imagine. In fact, I couldn’t imagine it; it has taken me by surprise. Because I know she will need to eat, and I will feed her, I know I will see her every few hours. And I actively, constantly, intensely look forward to that. I look forward to changing her diapers, because I can blow raspberries on her belly and possibly, hopefully, make her laugh. She will need her nap, and then she will wake up, and she will look for me. And I will be there. She will need a bath before bed, and to be nursed and hugged and held and loved. And I will be there.

Never in my life have I lived so joyously in the present, looking forward to every increment of the day. To be able to share it with a partner who is just as overjoyed and present is more than I ever hoped to have. I know that my daughter will have a love for her father just as strong as mine was for the one I lost.

My message for those who grieve is bound up in this. We are taught to mourn, to pine, and never to forget.

While grief will hold onto you for as long as it wants, try not to hold onto it so hard. There is no honor or reward in gripping the memories of lost loved ones so tightly that your knuckles are white and your soul is sore, and you grow tired. Better to focus on what you do have, on the small things, the tiny things—whatever can or does bring you joy. That, after all, is what any parent wants for their child—that they live a joyful life, not one that longs mostly for what isn’t there.

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