Husband and I watched "Bridesmaids" last night. I'd picked it up for fairly simple reasons: I'd heard that it passed the Bechdel test, and I'd heard that it was about friendship and growth instead of about Women Behaving Badly At Weddings, and I wanted to see what such a movie would look like. And then after adding it to the Blockbuster movie queue, I started obsessively worrying that such a movie would never be made and that the whole thing would be failtastic and saddening, so the disk ended up sitting on our coffee table for weeks until Husband got tired of it and popped it in to watch.
It wasn't actually that bad. It had the SNL-movie problem (and I've no idea if the movie is actually affiliated with Saturday Night Live in any way, so I'm just using that as shorthand) where some of the scenes felt like stand-alone skits that had gone on too long. And there's an extended scene with toilet/vomit humor that I personally didn't find funny (but Husband laughed, so there's that).
But there were good things, too! The movie really is about friendship and growing up and maintaining relationships, and there was very little about bridegrooms and bridezillas and weddings. In some ways, you could have gender-swapped all the characters and still had the same movie, with a single man wondering how married life and married friends will change his relationship with his childhood best friend. Refreshing! There's also a fat woman who isn't totally unlikeable and/or the butt of all jokes -- although she is... very strange... so there's that... but... I kind of liked her anyway, so I'll count it as a tiny centimeter of progress on the HAES front. Because I want to be optimistic today. And there's a woman who is unhappily married and doesn't like her children and the movie doesn't shame her for it! Like, seriously, she has some of the best lines, even!
Of course, it turns out that all the married women in the bridal party are unhappily married, so that's kind of sad. Hollywood, can we not have one happy married person? But, no, I'm being optimistic today, so I'm going to say that it's nice that we can have unhappily married characters living lives of quiet desperation without being horrible, evil people. And they're even unhappy married women, which is kind of cool because marriage is too often supposed to be happiness-forever for women, so this is kind of a realistic subversion! See? Happy. So I guess Bridesmaids gets a tentative recommendation from me: I sort of liked the characters, I laughed several times (especially at the puppies), I respected the exploration of friendships as the participants grow and change, and I liked that marriage wasn't presented as the be-all-end-all that every woman should strive for. It didn't set my world on fire, but that's okay.
What I was less enthralled with was the protagonist's (let's call her 'Annie' because I think that might have been her name, but I'm not looking it up) love interest (let's call him 'Rhodes' because it's possible that was his name). Rhodes is a sweet cop with possibly an Irish accent who takes an interest in Annie after he learns -- in a roundabout way -- that the two of them are neighbors, that Annie used to own his favorite cupcake store, and that she lost the store, her boyfriend, her savings, and all her dreams when the store failed to thrive in our current economy. See, doesn't that make you want to give Annie a hug? It makes me want to, and Rhodes seemed to want to do the same.
At first I really liked Rhodes. He was a by-the-book cop who only decided to let Annie off because he genuinely felt sorry for her, and he didn't try to take advantage of her in any way. In fact, the whole scene-where-Annie-is-pulled-over-by-a-cop-at-night bit was handled so well that I was actually surprised. I mean, it's obvious that Rhodes is going to be her romantic interest because he's the first Nice Single Guy in the movie, but they're not flirting and he's very professional and the whole thing wasn't even a little bit rape-y. It's like the writers were actually aware that this sort of situation can be dangerous for certain people, and they bent over backwards to make everything safe and reassuring. MOAR, PLEASE.
But then as Annie got to know Rhodes more, I started cooling on him a little. He was really upbeat and cheerful, and that was nice, but he kept really strongly urging Annie to be upbeat and cheerful even though we-the-viewer could see that her life was a lot more complicated than he realized and that slightly-down-and-a-little-depressed was actually a pretty decent response on her part, all things considered. And about halfway through the movie it hit me: Rhodes is a Manic Pixie Dream Guy.
Now, I try not to hate on MPDGs. I get that they're a really compelling fantasy: someone comes along who just won't be put off by your drama, and instead they bring light and life and new perspectives and joie de vive with them, and things get better. That's pretty compelling when you feel like there's nothing that you, personally, can do to make life better -- maybe someone else holds the key to making life better! And I think if the subject is handled sensitively, it can come off well; I liked Phoebe from Friends well enough, and I think it's because she got a real character arc and wasn't just a catalyst to make someone's life better. So there's that.
But something I never noticed before -- and maybe it took a male character who was also a cop (and therefore has a little more privilege and power than your average MPDG) to make me see this -- is how pushy MPDGs are. Early on in Bridesmaids, Rhodes latches onto the notion that all Annie really needs to do is start baking again in order to be happy and healed, and he latches onto this largely because he liked eating her food and he wants more of it. Nearly every conversation he has with Annie has him urging -- strongly, intensely, seriously -- her to BAKE! and when she demures that her life isn't in the right place for that now, he gives her a scoffing look to express his quirky disdain for her and these things she calls feelings. Seriously, it's really off-putting.
At the mid-point of the movie, Annie and Rhodes sleep together and she wakes up with him staring at her. This is not quite Edward-Cullen-creepy as it mirrors an earlier scene where she had to get up and apply makeup before her bed-partner sees her, so it's kind of sweet in that it establishes Rhodes as the sort of guy who thinks she's beautiful regardless. But then he beckons her into the kitchen, where "more fun awaits".
Now, I like to yell things at movies, so I put on a pompous voice and said "YOU WILL BAKE FOR ME," but I didn't mean it. I assumed that the writers recognized that this would be really freaking pushy and instead I was expecting a movie-standard "after-sex" breakfast of burned bacon, rubbery eggs, and black toast. And maybe Annie could say something about it being the nicest thing she's eaten in a long time, and maybe Rhodes could finally get it through his criminally thick skull that Annie is a member of the Working Poor and that her failure to fix her car tail-lights isn't a quirky quirk of quirkiness, but rather a symptom of the fact that she's freaking poor and maybe he can get off his high horse.
*ahem* Sorry, that paragraph got away from me there. Anyway, no, he actually does basically say, "I expect you to bake in my kitchen so I can eat the baked things and this will be good for you." My jaw dropped.
It occurs to me that one of the defining traits of the MPDG is that zie doesn't really take 'no' for an answer. We've talked about how Stalker Edward Cullen is Sexeh because he's a stalker -- not because women want to be stalked and hurt and terrified, but rather because some people appreciate the idea of a lover who isn't going to be put off by depression and a bad personality. Edward's appeal lies in the fact that no matter how boring or depressing or blase Bella thinks she is, Edward still thinks she's the most wonderful person on earth. She can emotionally push him away as many times as she wants or needs to, and he'll come back every time -- he's like a security blanket on a bungee cord.
The flip side to this, though, is that the MPDG isn't able to recognize a real 'no'. Annie really isn't in a good place for baking right now. The whole effort is tied up with the fact that she lost her store, her boyfriend, her money, and all her dreams, and now she's working below the living wage in a job she hates and living with roommates who frequently violate her privacy and they don't recognize her poverty and neither does her best friend who wants her to fly to Vegas for parties she can't afford and her new boyfriend keeps nagging her about her car and none of this would be a problem if she hadn't lost so much money opening a bakery in the middle of a rough economy and she's a failure.
These are the things baking reminds Annie of. Annie doesn't need to bake this very moment, she needs a hug and some stress-free movie time (with popcorn!) and she needs a living wage and a better housing situation. It's not Rhodes' responsibility to provide these things, but he really should recognize these things if he wants to be considered a decent human being, and yet persistently he doesn't. Rhodes lives in a nice house with plenty of food and his own mountain bike and it never once occurs to him -- or, indeed, to anyone else in the movie -- that maybe Annie can't afford those things and maybe Annie doesn't want to dwell on that fact more often than her life forces her to. Imagine that!
There's nothing necessarily wrong with writing a character who is kooky or quirky or who pushes past defensive barriers in order to worm their way into a hurting character's heart. There's nothing necessarily wrong with a character who pushes back a little against boundaries in order to see where a relationship can go. But there is something very wrong about a character who persistently and constantly brushes past another character's I needs and I wants because the MPDG is just so dang sure that they know best what the other person's needs and wants "actually" are. Such a character is the worst caricature of an evangelist, pushing their own worldview and lifestyle on everyone else, regardless of individual need.
When Annie leaves Rhodes, refusing to bake for him, she says "You don't know me." I think we're meant to disagree with this, or to see it as the weak, plaintive call of the woman who flees from healthy relationships. The problem is, she's right: he doesn't know her. He doesn't know the first thing about her. He doesn't know how much money she lost when her bakery went under. He doesn't know how serious things were with her boyfriend when he left her. He doesn't know what she does now, or how she earns a living, or whether or not she cries herself to sleep every night. He doesn't know her, and yet he thinks he knows how to fix her.
He's right, of course, because Manic Pixie Dream People are always right by mandate of the writers.
But I don't have to like it.
I did like the puppies, though.