As part of my research for the monograph tentatively titled Screen Comedy and Online Audiences, I have been examining online discussions of comedy driven by female performers. One of my case studies is Bridesmaids (2011), an R-rated US comedy written by Annie Mumolo and Kirsten Wiig, directed by Paul Feig and produced by Judd Apatow. It stars Wiig alongside Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne, Melissa McCarthy, Wendi McLendon-Covey and Ellie Kemper. The film has two main narrative strands. One focuses on single and unemployed Annie´s (Wiig) deteriorating behaviour as she competes for the position of bride´s (Rudolph) best friend with fellow bridesmaid Helen (Byrne). A second key strand follows Annie´s developing romantic relationship with police officer Rhodes (Chris O´Dowd). The film over-performed at the US box office and was very well received by critics.
Prior to its release, Bridesmaids was hyped in the “blogosphere” and in mainstream media as The Hangover by women or for women. I am interested in how such gendered hype might work as a recurring paratextual frame for female driven comedy, distinguishing it from other comedy based on the gender of its performers and characters, and encouraging us to think about it as an exception to the masculine norm in comedy. My examination of Bridesmaids reviews by male and female bloggers found that this gendered distinction was seen to bestow two key responsibilities on the film.
The first of these was a responsibility for “proving” that women can be funny and convincing a broad audience that women can “carry” comedies. The bloggers tended to be very enthusiastic about the film´s focus on women, praising the script and the performances as laugh out loud funny, and singling out Wiig and McCarthy for their command of physical comedy. On the basis of these qualities, Bridesmaids was constructed as appealing to male and female audiences (whaaat?!), and as something of a long-awaited saviour for female-driven comedy. This disregarded previous examples of such success, while setting Bridesmaids up as a potential launch pad for future success stories.
Bridesmaids´ second responsibility was for promoting feminism. Some bloggers expressed delight that it featured representations of women that were not created for male viewers or in relation to male characters. They read the characters as funny and complex rather than sexy and highlighted a narrative focus on female friendship rather than heterosexual romance. However, others were disappointed by the film´s perceived failure to live up to its feminist pre-release hype. They stressed its representations of conventionally feminine pursuits (Annie is a baker and the film focuses partly on wedding preparations), its preoccupation with women as competitors and the narrative strand that develops Annie´s heterosexual romance. And while some saw the film´s gross-out elements as disrupting conventions of femininity, others saw it as “pandering” to male viewers.
I wonder if the tendency to view female-driven comedies in isolation (Warner and Savigny 2015) means that some of us desire each one to be everything that we want a comedy to be: Its funniness should be demonstrated by our own enjoyment as well as box office success and critical acclaim, while its representations should challenge dominant ideologies without putting off a broad audience. This reception context poses a challenge for female-driven comedy, and I am interested in seeing whether we might begin to locate such productions more firmly within a history of female comedic performances, and whether that might diffuse the pressure on individual films to please everyone.