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The Bitches: All-female groups in film

August 15, 2014

*This article a brother: The Bruisers.

I had high hopes for Bridesmaids. I did find it funny, but as the story progressed I started to recognise all the old devices of the typical chick-flick / light film three act structure: protagonist starts life and has problems they haven’t acknowledged yet; protagonist’s problems come to a head and they lose everything they thought was important; protagonist realises certain things weren’t so very important compared to Other Things Like Friendship, and that they only have themselves to blame for the whole mess, whereupon they get their shit together and sorts things out, usually following a piece of sage advice from a friend. Or a circus monkey. Or a passing rag-and-bone man.

Bridesmaids began promisingly enough with a natural sounding (thus funny) conversation between two female friends. These are dotted throughout the movie and are by far the highlights of it. What makes them engaging is that, but for minor details, you could imagine it happening between any group of friends of any sex, any sexuality, any race and age bracket. To some people, that may sound like a cop-out. To them, not having one of those specific elements means characters don’t seem like real people. I disagree. I have thought for some time that these elements, far from being the bare bones of a character, are more like the first layer of skin that peels off with ease.

If you ever watched As Good As It Gets, you might remember Jack Nicholson’s cantankerous author telling one of his female fans that his way to write female characters was to “think of a man, and take away reason and accountability.” Male chauvinism to one side, I’m with him on the first half. If you are male, default human beings appear in your mind’s eye as male. So the way to write a female character is to think of a man, and switch the pronouns. Or the other way around – write a female character and temporarily switch her to male. This is a fail-safe way of making sure you have a good female character. If the male version of your character comes across as camp, vain, fatuous and shallow, you know you have made a mistake.

This is a technique I doubt has been applied to most female-majority chick flicks. Films like My Best Friend’s Wedding and series like Sex and the City are reliant on the idea that women are normal people + something is the Madonna half of the Madonna/whore complex, the theory that we either think of women as the epitome of purity or as sullied goods – I’d say often simultaneously, or interchangeably from one day to the next.

Culturally, we have encouraged ourselves to think that women are something special in and of themselves. They have a mysterious, indefinable otherness that makes them fundamentally different to men. Keeping in mind that society thinks of men as being the default human being, that translates as women being fundamentally different to human beings.

And so they are, in films like these. Chick flicks revel in all manner of relationships and personality “types” that don’t exist in real life. The whole picture has a kind of the white-centric and heteronormative filter over the top of it, where gay people and people of colour exist to be entertaining sideshows to the interests of straight white women. But the most prevalent of all is the whore part of Madonna/whore: The Bitches trope.

Bitches, to everyone who isn’t a rapper, are females who are unpleasant, usually in a passive- aggressive or manipulative way. It’s an old idea that’s been around since the femme fatal and has simply lost subtlety over the years, moving away from the bewitching charmer and firmly towards the totally charmless, needlessly antagonistic moron. Cop thrillers have been using this character type for years, but if this is an attempt to masculinise female characters to make them more interesting, it is an abject failure.

In this specific genre of film, The Bitches are whichever two women (one is usually our main character) decide that they do not like each other based on absolutely nothing – otherwise known as envy. This results in a infuriated struggle for attention from a neutral party, usually a love interest, but in the case of Bridesmaids, a best friend of the same sex.

Since I tend to think my own envy is a fault in myself rather than other people, envy determines little about the way in which I interact with them. Mature adults endeavour to avoid people who aggravate them and are on the whole much better than these fictitious monstrosities at displaying a modicum of civility regardless of how they feel. Thus, real people don’t cause themselves too many social problems as a result of envy. We learn that it serves little purpose when we are about eight years old (with a slight blip from 13-16). Thus, I find it a bit difficult to empathise with our main character’s jealous lover’s rage and its propensity to completely unravel her life.

The whole concept smacks of a teenager’s diary, but is a feature of all women in films under the age of 40 (in reality, 32. Or Meryl Streep). This makes it a tragic spectacle. As a side note, when I say 39, I’m not talking approximately – an infuriating number of storylines are based on the idea that She’s 39 And She’ll Be 40 Soon And She Won’t Be YOUNG Any More And Doesn’t That Just Drive Her Mad? OH Yes. As if she’ll go to sleep on the eve of her birthday a baby-faced, smooth-skinned prom queen and wake up a withered, hairy old coconut husk.

Envy and rivalry is bound up by the need to be civil. This much is true both in life and in this fiction, the difference being that it usually takes living people longer than two hours for the pressure to build up and explode into an impotent, cake-throwing rage. Films work on fast forward, which is their gift and curse; they may be tidy packages for slices of life, but their hurriedness will always carry with it the faint stench of the ridiculous.

I’ll admit there is a social point to be made about women’s need to be civil; men have the liberty to be more up front about their dislike and women are expected to sit on it. That said, men are also expected to be clear about the nature of their dislike, even if it’s something as abhorrent as “I hate those queers.” The Bitch Trope gives neither rhyme nor reason to the nature of the hatred, other than general “difference”. It sets out to have our character either “win” the long drawn-out and sometimes one-sided altercation, or – a recent trope probably best typified by My Best Friend’s Wedding – resolve their differences by realising they have more in common than they thought, or that the other is just as deserving of the desired object.

There is another genre of movie that uses this device; yep, cop movies. Specifically, odd couple buddy movies, usually involving men. The difference is that the most awful, two-bit action buddy movie will usually give more depth to its characters than any self-styled chick flick. Whereas there is usually an obvious good-cop-bad-cop routine in any cop movie, the maverick may have a penchant for teddy bears and the straight-as-an-arrow type might spend his weekends peeking in at strangers’ windows.

In short, they are allowed to vary from the strict outline of the cliché; if fact, they must, because the trope is so overused that in order to stand out, there is no option but to add random quirks that move on a different tangent to the rest of that character’s personality. I call this fake or constructed depth, but it nonetheless gives a sense that the film makers have attempted to design this person as unique. There are so many cop thrillers and buddy movies, almost all involving two men, that any deviation on the formula is essential, however contrived.

Compare to chick flicks, where your characters are going to be defined as “the gross one,” “the prissy one”, “the innocent”, “the drippy one”, “the perfect one that nobody likes”, “the quirky one”, “the married one”, “the excruciatingly lovey-dovey one” and, oh horror, “the nice one”. If you’re lucky, you’ll get “the misunderstood one”. As such, depth becomes impossible, because any contrary traits will most likely be represented in the character’s antonym version instead. The film-makers will be conscious of them each having too much in common, since if one person shares traits with another, that renders one of them obsolete, and it is far easier to write five empty characters than one full one.

This is a common tactic. Having plenty of main characters negates the need to make any one of them complex. As soon as the director feels the camera has been on one for too long, he can simply move to another, rather than reveal something new about them. In long-running series, this lack of depth causes more problems than it solves, because when time comes to develop characters, the sudden arrival of hitherto unseen traits makes them seem like they’ve had a sudden personality transplant.

It is a problem more reserved for women because, frankly, we don’t understand what women are, or think we don’t. Apparently, the question “What do women want?” cannot be answered satisfactorily with: “Probably about the same sorts of things that men do.” Women have to be people + something else. Otherwise, what’s the point of them? This is the thought process that I imagine lurks deep within writers of popular fiction within any medium.

Our mistake is that we create women in fiction and then we cut them down to fit a formula that never worked in the first place. It’s too restricting to need to have bitches, prissy ones and perfect ones. Everyone except the most misogynistic bottom-feeding basement dweller will know first hand than women in real life are varied and interesting.

Yet when they are transported to fiction, they must be The Good, The Bad and The Pretty (And We Hate Her For It Even Though We Have Been Trying To Tell You That Being Pretty On The Outside Isn’t Important, Not That Any Of Us Are Anything Like Close To Ugly So What The Fuck Would We Know About It Anyway).

Little wonder that so many men are deterred from women’s movies, when the women in it are less a different sex and more a different species. They confuse poor characterisation and poor writing for a poor concept, developing this idea that there is something in the nature of women’s film and women’s interests that makes them inherently boring.

So men avoid them, ignoring the fact that your average masculine film, testosterone charged and ridiculous, is just as badly written and alienating, and unaware that the average chick flick is actually a man’s film: a male director, expressing male ideas about women and femininity. What’s being shown is a male, heteronormative fantasy of what womanhood is. Even if the director is gay, he can still have heteronormative fantasies, just as 21st century dwellers can romanticise the 18th century and all those lovely hats.

More disappointing is the reaction of young women to these films. I can’t image that it is really empathy or familiarity that draws women to shallow fiction. The appeal could be a desperate need for representation that stoops to the lowest levels of it… Or just escapism. The best proof of that is the presence the predictable relationships with the male love interests who are designed to be non-threatening marriageable men, in contrast to the suave arsehole men they have been involved with previously – obviously the best way to tackle unimaginative female characters is to have unimaginative male ones. Though of course, the male director may just be trying to put himself into the feature, accompanied by a whiff of sad hopefulness.

The more well-meaning but equally misguided method of female characterisation is to invert the tropes. Think about that for a moment: invert the tropes of womanhood. What are the tropes of manhood? Do they exist to be inverted? If women can be inverted to be made “gross” or “masculine”, then that means there must have been a typical expectation from which the opposite was formed. Men are harder to flip 180 degrees. What would Sherlock Holmes look like if you flipped him so his most masculine characteristics were feminine? Much the same, because while he is recognisably male, his character is not defined by alpha male stereotypes.

However, I’m guilty of preferring the “inverted” characters. I think they are funnier and indeed, closer to my own perception of women, who in my experience are not willowy branches floating from room to room in a shroud of good will and fine silk. However, the inverted characters only serve to reinforce the idea that there is a typical or even correct womanhood which only the most socially unusual of individuals will abandon (note that such individuals will also be shown as undesirable – again unrealistic).

I get the uncomfortable feeling that the film makers feel like they’re doing some kind of a favour to fat or less feminine women by depicting them in the first place, almost as if to say: “See? There’s always someone worse than you, so don’t you feel bad about yourself, you big mountain of fun,” or “This is you! See how everyone loves you like a stinky little dog that shits on the carpet. Bless.” These characters are always there to be laughed at, as people who you would never want to be, however much they are liked. Their difference from stereotypical norms is a trap; they are about as “empowering” as those old adverts that told women that they could please their man much more easily if they bought a particular kind of instant coffee.

I can see this trend continuing for quite some time before it’s picked up by audiences on a wide scale, scorned, and hastily changed to reflect the new order. The cynic in me thinks it will be replaced with something equally bad, because this cliché itself was a replacement of one that existed before. Older films, from bad ones to some excellent ones, portrayed women as dependants and lacking autonomy. In modern films, women make choices – they just have terrible judgement. It’s almost as if the idea: “A woman can’t make good decisions for herself, so it’s up to her man to guide her,” lives on. Even in the almost all-female cast of Bridesmaids, it is the most masculine character that gives the advice that kickstarts our protagonist into the third act of the film.

I hardly think it’s too much to ask that we stop trying so hard to play to type. Is it really worth the effort it takes to uphold other people’s bizarre ideas of what women are? This insistence on keeping women as Women often fails so miserably. Isn’t it easier to think of a man and switch the pronouns? The difference between a decent light film and a bad one is nothing more than a reworking the tropes, rushing through them at speed or burying them under a boatload of other inconsequential things so they don’t seem so obvious. What they all have in common is the underlying cliché. Imagine how much better they’d be if we could remove clichés at the root.

Woman are not a “type”. Actually, there are very few “types” of any kind. Prissy and bitchy and innocent and all the rest of them are not types, but rather quick value judgements we place on people we don’t know. In fact and fiction, people making no logical transition from your first impression of them represents either a fault in your perception or a purposeful withholding of vital information. At the very least, the idea that “woman” is not a social category seems so obvious, I don’t know how to express it without giving someone a pat on the head and biscuit at the same time.

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