In every film class, in every film podcast, and in every article I’ve read about the success of funny women in film, Bridesmaids is always pointed to as the film that allowed women to take the front seat in their own comedy films. Before Bridesmaids, how could we really, truly know women could carry a comedy film all by themselves? How could we have known that funny women could make money for studios?
Bridesmaids is a movie about a pair of best friends named Annie (Kristen Wiig) and Lillian (Maya Rudolph). When Lillian gets engaged, she asks Annie to be her maid of honor, but Annie is constantly being upstaged by Helen (Rose Byrne), a richer bridesmaid. Becoming bitter, Annie comes to discover her dysfunctionality and inadequacy are not Helen’s fault, but rather herself getting in her own way. Annie learns how to accept herself and to be grateful for what she has instead of pining after what she once had or what she’ll never have. The bride, as well as the other bridesmaids — including Megan (Melissa McCarthy), Rita (Wendi McLendon-Covey), and Becca (Ellie Kemper) — all learn things from each other and become stronger as a group.
In many ways, Bridesmaids was a test case for female-led comedies. Studios made it clear to everyone working on the film that the future of the genre was on their shoulders. After the film went into production, other screenwriters with scripts about and for women started to pitch their ideas, but studios were waiting to see how Bridesmaids did at the box office before they decided to give more women opportunities to create these kinds of comedic feature films. Writers Wiig and Mumolo ended up bringing in $288.4 million dollars with Bridesmaids, making the film Judd Apatow’s highest-grossing. From there, audiences have gotten to see Wiig and McCarthy’s careers really explode, and the comedy genre of film expands into “women’s issue films.” From Girls Trip, to Booksmart, to Bad Moms, to Ghostbusters (2016), the buddy comedy genre has proven to be a genre that men and women can star in, making money for studios and delighting audiences of all kinds.
The history of women in comedy is one of constant struggle against the men who wanted them to fail, and this isn’t a history that spans from the invention of the television to now, or even the beginning of vaudeville comedy to now. This is a history that beginsin 1695, with playwright William Congreve decreeing (without being asked, I might add), “I must confess I have never made an Observation of what I Apprehend to be true Humour in Women…Perhaps Passions are too powerful in that Sex to let Humour have its course; or maybe by reason of their Natural Coldness, Humour cannot Exert itself to that extravagant Degree, which is does in the Male Sex.” If only he had lived to see Bridesmaids! He would have felt so stupid.
More recently though, we have had people like John Belushi sabotaging SNL sketches written by women and asking for the female writers on the show to be fired, Jerry Lewis telling the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival that a woman was a “producing machine that brings babies in the world” and therefore couldn’t be good at comedy, and presumably male psychologists publishing “research” that “proved” men were biologically the funnier sex. These attitudes and comments fueled studios thinking women were incapable of making a comedy that would attract an audience. This isn’t to say there weren’t funny women in films, but since studios are all about making money, they didn’t trust women to star in a comedic film or stack a movie with an all-female ensemble. Women also weren’t seen as a viable audience group. Despite their being half of the population, when Bridesmaids came out, it was still seen as a “niche” film. Its success, which largely came in the form of large box office numbers, opened the doors for other “niche” movies about “women’s issues” to get made. As more movies about women came out, they became less niche, giving us movies like Wonder Woman and Ocean’s 8.
Bridesmaids was a successful film for a number of reasons, the first one being it was produced by Judd Apatow. Had this movie not been marketed as an Apatow film, it may not have been as successful as it was. When this movie came out in 2011, Apatow was riding the success of Knocked Up, Superbad, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Anchorman, and an array of other successful films all centered around funny men. These Apatow films could be sexist, raunchy, disgusting, and any other adjectives you could use to describe the stereotypical male fantasy comedy. So, when Bridesmaids came out, even though it was a movie about women, when audiences saw the name Judd Apatow on the movie poster, they knew what to expect. Had Wiig and Mumolo self-produced this film, it probably wouldn’t have reached as broad of an audience right away.
Another thing that made Bridesmaids successful and stand out was the fact that despite playing off of male-centered comedy tropes, the movie didn’t try to be something it wasn’t. Although it has often been compared to The Hangover, Bridesmaids separates itself from the “male comedy” outline to be something unique and feminine. As The Guardian put it, “The bridesmaids aren’t copying male behaviour, but neither do they come across as archetypal females….This time it’s Lillian, not her groom, who fears that marriage will rob her of her mates. It’s Annie who has a problem with commitment, and not her swain.” Bridesmaids reclaims the comedy genre, showing realistic and raw representations of women. They are funny, yet serious; strong, yet insecure. These women just are who they are. They make a statement about women in comedy through their refusal to play into the ideas of what people want women in comedy to be. Audiences think women in comedy movies will just be talking about their periods and being screwed over by men, but instead these women are characters anyone and everyone can relate to. With the release of Bridesmaids, it was proven that women can make a comedy film just as funny as men can by allowing women to just be people— funny or not.
But aside from being groundbreaking and hilarious, there is a lot to Bridesmaids that often goes unappreciated. Bridesmaids is an emotional film about the realities of female friendships. It shows us a hero who is her own villain despite putting the blame onto everybody around her. It is a film we can all see ourselves in— struggling to show up for others when we can’t even show up for ourselves. It has moments of humor, as well as moments of deep despair and sadness. In a scene after Annie explodes in anger in front of all of her friends, ruining Lillian’s bridal shower, Megan comes over to Annie’s house to see if she’s okay. Pouting, Annie tells her, “I got fired from my job. I got kicked out of my apartment. I can’t pay any of my bills. My car is a piece of shit. I don’t have any friends.”
Megan cuts her off, saying, “You know what I find interesting about that, Annie? It’s interesting to me that you have absolutely no friends. You know why that’s interesting? Here’s a friend standing directly in front of you, trying to talk to you. And you choose to talk about the fact that you don’t have any friends…I don’t think you want any help. I think you want to have a little pity party.” She then starts hitting Annie to simulate life throwing punches, adding some levity to the otherwise very heavy situation. Bridesmaids has a lot of serious moments like this, where we as an audience are reminded that as funny and silly as this movie can be, it is still about the realities of being a single woman after the 2008 housing market crash.
Annie’s life was her business, but it went under in 2008. With her bakery went her relationship, her money, and her own self-worth. She never fully heals from the trauma of all that she lost when she lost her company. But instead of picking herself up, she wallows in it and lashes out at the people around her who are just trying to help her. Bridesmaids gives us a story where the hero is also the villain. At first, we are led to believe that the rich and seemingly perfect Helen is the source of all of Annie’s problems. But as Annie comes to realize maybe she is her own worst enemy, the audience sees it as well. Giving audiences a complicated hero is a unique and bold thing to do in a film that knew it had the future of female comedic films riding on its shoulders. Bridesmaids deserves to be honored for the film that it really is, a comedy and an honest story about friendship, self-image, the impact of the 2008 Great Recession on small business owners, and how to start to heal from trauma.
While Bridesmaids took a lot of steps forward for women in comedy, these steps were for primarily thin, beautiful, white women. The movie takes cheap shots by dressing McCarthy’s character sloppily, oftentimes making her gross, obsessed with food, and using her body as the butt of many jokes. Bridesmaids was a game changer for female-ensemble comedy films, but it still falls into the archetypal male fantasy of the comedy genre by hyper-sexualizing beautiful women and desexualizing every other woman. As much as Bridesmaids deserves praise, it is important to remember it would still take six years for Girls Trip to get made — a similarly structured comedy about Black women — and eight years before audiences got to see a Puerto Rican actress star in female buddy comedy Someone Great. The point is, it’s still a fight for women whom production companies deem unprofitable.
When film classes, podcasts, and articles talk about women in film, they should continue to celebrate Bridesmaids, but re-evaluate why. Bridesmaids is a great film because it is funny and because it allows women to be everything they want to be— funny, messy, serious, emotional — all of it. Mixed in with discussions about Bridesmaids should also be a conversation about how comedy can become even more inclusive for all kinds of women. There is still room in the film industry for comedies to tell different kinds of stories about women without needing to humiliate some women to get laughs. Bridesmaids is great, but it shouldn’t be the be-all end all “we proved women can be funny” movie. Rather, it should be a foundation we build upon to make sure everyone has the opportunity to tell their stories and see themselves in the stories being told.