Remember how critics described Bridesmaids as a game-changing, female-centric, raunchy manifesto of a woman’s right to behave badly on screen? While I truly enjoyed how Bridesmaids featured women with flaws greater than a propensity for falling down, the film was still relatively tame and—outside of the poop, anal bleaching, and penis impersonations—a classic romantic comedy with a happy ending that even included the standard cute Irish fellow. None of the women behaved that badly or produced meltdowns that approximated normal female behavior. Don’t get me wrong: I really liked Bridesmaids, and I realize it was never meant to be a dark film. But critics acted as though it was an accurate depiction of girls gone bad. Twenty minutes into a viewing of Bachelorette and I began to think, “ah … so this is the film critics imagined when they were watching Bridesmaids.” Not only is writer/director Leslye Headland’s Bachelorette decidedly darker but it is also a much more poignant look at female self-destruction.
Although I’m not a massive bitch and barely drink, I get the girls of Bachelorette—self-absorbed, troubled women on the cusp of 30, who characterize men using the classic Krakow/Catalano taxonomy and treat their bodies either with complete disregard or like unruly children in need of strict discipline. Most of the titular bachelorettes can’t quite transition into adulthood (i.e., your classic Apatovian fault), but they also exhibit more specifically female flaws: they use sex for validation, talk about their friends behind their backs, and, most significantly, despise their own bodies. In short, they behave like a lot of women I know.I don’t want to keep knocking Bridesmaids because it’s a smart comedy whose success made the studio release of a film like Bachelorette possible, but Bachelorette underscores the one aspect of Bridesmaids that always bothered me: its depiction of heavy women. Most of the women in Bridesmaids are thin or very thin—with the notable exceptions of Melissa McCarthy and Rebel Wilson. Wilson’s character exists solely to provide the audience flesh to mock, and McCarthy—funny as she is—has to work with material that defines her as sloppy and disgusting because of her weight. McCarthy tries to inject a little humanity into this character, but the director still takes it for granted that the audience will find it hilarious that this large woman would attempt to seduce a man (or have sex without the presence of a sandwich).
In Bachelorette, it is Becky (oddly enough, also played by Rebel Wilson), the heaviest member of the “friend group,” who lands the attractive and successful fiancé—a fact her skinny friends simply can’t comprehend. Regan, the alpha prom queen (played with great depth by Kirsten Dunst), says what a lot of young women watching the film probably think. She feels she has done everything right (e.g., exercised; ordered the salad without dressing, bacon, cheese, or meat; gone to Princeton), yet she remains in a bad relationship while her heavier friend is getting fitted for a dress. It never occurs to her that Becky might be getting married because she is the most mature, kind, and well adjusted of all the girls. Regan’s preoccupation with her own body makes it difficult for to imagine a man caring for anything other than a woman’s dress size.
In a moment that is central to the plot and the director’s concern with female callousness, Regan and the very coked-out Katie (Isla Fisher), try to fit themselves into Becky’s dress at the same time, giggling that they will post the photo on Facebook. We all know this is going to lead to a torn dress and a long, chaotic night, but what is more significant is how the scene exemplifies the bacherlorettes’ capacity for casual cruelty. Imagine if they did post a photo of themselves mocking their friend’s size the night before her wedding; that would be seriously fucked up.
This drunken nastiness is clearly the product of the young women’s messed up relationships with their own bodies. While Gena (Lizzy Caplan)and Katie slowly destroy their bodies through excessive alcohol and drug use, it’s the seemingly perfect Regan who best illustrates the difficulties of living within a female skin. When we first meet Regan, she describes her position working with children who have cancer: “Cancer is hard, and twelve is hard.” Initially, this line seems like a platitude meant to underscore the character’s false kindness, but when she repeats it later in the film, she drops any sentimentality and states what she really means. When asked by James Marsden (playing an epic Catalano douchebag) why twelve is hard, she bluntly points out that this is the age when girls begin to hate themselves. It’s a small moment but also a decididley truthful one. Twelve is the age when your body begins to change and you often find yourself worrying less about what you want and more about what your body signifies. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the anxiety and depression rates of girls—though equal with boys’ before adolescence—are dramatically higher once puberty hits.
This concern with self-cruelty is reiterated in the film’s climax when Katie overdoses on pills and Regan, without a second thought, makes her throw up. The film has already revealed that Regan was (and likely still is) bulimic, but her response to Katie’s state doesn’t just echo this revelation; it highlights the ugly side of being oh so pretty. While Regan sticks her fingers down Katie’s throat, the clueless Dale (Hayes MacArthur) screams that Regan is going to hurt her. Eyeing him with disdain, Regan explains that it’s nothing to be afraid of; she used to do it to herself all the time. As Katie regains consciousness and begins to vomit, Dale looks at Regan with a puzzled expression and asks why she would possibly do that to herself. “Because I wanted to be beautiful,” Regan replies, letting the vomit drip down her dress. The film could have ended here.
I’ve heard Bachelorette likened to Young Adult because both films feature unlikable female leads, but I don’t believe the comparison holds. The central problem with Young Adult is that Charlize Theron’s character is not simply having issues; she appears to have a personality disorder. It’s impossible to relate to her problems because you keep waiting to discover that she just came off her anti-psychotics. I’ve also heard critics complain that Bachelorette, unlike Young Adult, loses its edge at the end, but I completely disagree. If Regan hadn’t revealed that there was any genuine affection hidden beneath her icy bitch persona (or proven that type-A women can get shit done even if they look somewhat crazy doing it), she would have remained a caricature—like Theron’s ridiculous Mazie. This would have merely reinforced the tired stereotype that some women are unremittingly bitchy and some women are wholly nice. Instead, the film suggests that many young women—even those who will allow themselves to be covered in vomit for the sake of a friend—often engage in some seriously unpretty behavior.
As Regan, Jena, and Katie discuss the possibility of changing their lives during the reception, they all ultimately decide to have a drink first. This is funny, but it also reminds us that all the damage women do to themselves cannot be undone in one night—even one epic night, during which the ultimate symbol of female “purity”—a wedding dress—ends up covered in sweat, blood, and semen. These girls may be wearing polyester and died shoes, but that cute Irish fellow is nowhere to be found.