Producer-director Judd Apatow (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Superbad) may seem an unlikely feminist hero, but his latest hit movie, Bridesmaids, was widely treated as a breakthrough for progressive and egalitarian ideas. Though directed by a man (Paul Feig)—and one, at that, who gave his autobiography the (intentionally) ironic title Superstud—the movie was written by two women (Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo) who were treated on a par with the breakers of glass ceilings. For in almost every one of the dozen or so reviews that I perused, the reviewer mentioned the authors’ sex in connection with the notorious article by Christopher Hitchens which appeared in Vanity Fair in 2007 and which claimed to answer the question of “Why Women Aren’t Funny.” These critics seemed to like Bridesmaids less for any intrinsically cinematic merit it had than because they regarded it as the definitive refutation of Mr. Hitchens’s shockingly sexist opinion.
It would doubtless be ungallant of me to point out that it only took four years for the apologists for women’s comedic talents to find their counter-example. But what an example it was! Let me describe to you as carefully as I can what is perhaps the most memorable scene in Bridesmaids. Miss Wiig, who also stars as Annie, the maid of honor, has taken the bride (Maya Rudolph) and the other bridesmaids out to lunch at a decidedly seedy-looking Brazilian restaurant before they all go to a bridal boutique to pick out their dresses. Each is swathed in yards of gossamer and lace when it becomes apparent that something in the lunch did not agree with them—and in a way so disagreeable as to make Mr. Hitchens’s noxious views look like a meeting of the minds. There is a mad dash to the shop’s only ladies’ room which, rather improbably, contains only one toilet and one sink.
Mr. Feig’s camera, while discreet enough about one kind of bodily effluvium, lingers just a bit on another kind as two of the bridesmaids fight for access to the toilet and a third finds it more convenient to sit in the sink. The bride, who naturally has put on the pouffiest and whitest of the dresses, is thus hobbled in the race to the loo and instead attempts to leg it to one at another establishment across the way. She doesn’t make it, but instead sinks to her knees in the middle of the street with head bowed and her ample skirts ballooning about her lower extremities like a wilted but still white flower. Hilarious, I think you will agree. As Manohla Dargis of the New York Times put it in her glowing if not uncritical review, the movie “goes where no typical chick flick does: the gutter”—literally, in this case—thus answering doubters with a demonstration that “women can go aggressive laugh to aggressive-and-absurd laugh with men.”
Funnily enough, it turns out that Mr. Hitchens never said women couldn’t be funny or even that there were not many women who are as funny as the funniest men. He had written that they weren’t naturally so, for reasons that had to do with evolutionary biology (men need humor to attract women; women do not need humor to attract men) and that when women were funny they tended to assume more masculine characteristics. As Fran Lebowitz put it to him: “The cultural values are male; for a woman to say a man is funny is the equivalent of a man saying that a woman is pretty. Also, humor is largely aggressive and pre-emptive, and what’s more male than that?” Thus the gross-out humor of Bridesmaids, to say nothing of the furious feminist response to his article—“That’s not funny!” being the answer to the old riddle about how many feminists it takes to screw in a light bulb —rather tended to confirm than to disprove Mr. Hitchens’s point, I would have thought.
Miss Dargis was only one of those queuing up to write about the movie at the New York Times—which was to name its first female executive editor three weeks later. In addition to her review, the paper devoted not one but two Sunday feature articles, including a 3,000-word magazine profile of Miss Wiig, and at least three posts on its Artsbeat blog. The explanation for this love-bombing by the one-time newspaper of record and pillar of the establishment must lie in an obscure sense that the Misses Wiig and Mumolo’s efforts amounted to a vindication of the rights of women. As Miss Dargis put it, “in most wedding movies an actress may have the starring part (though not always), but it’s only because her character’s function is to land a man rather than to be funny. Too many studio bosses seem to think that a woman’s place is in a Vera Wang.” The bastards! But if women can do gross-out comedy as well as and, well, as grossly as men, that’s a victory for equality!
In the same way, the foreign press in May was much agitated by a craze in Europe and Canada (which oddly didn’t make much of a media impact here) for something called SlutWalking. This was born after some hapless Toronto police constable had told a women’s group that if they wished to minimize the dangers of sexual assault, they shouldn’t dress like sluts. You or I might think such unexceptionable advice only a prudent act of deference to reality, but the entire feminist movement seems to have arisen as a single feminist to pronounce anathemata on the head of the poor copper, who of course was forced to issue a groveling apology for his insensitivity. Numbers of them proceeded to parade about their various village commons dressed as sluts—though in some cases they had to carry signs or write the word on their outfits so that people would know what they were supposed to be—in order to tell reality where it could get off.
THE WEEK AFTER Bridesmaids opened to a strong second-place box-office showing behind the teenage superhero movie Thor, the New York Times Magazine ran a curious piece by British blue-stocking Jenny Diski titled “An Unspeakable Word Is the Word That Has to Be Spoken.” It was a paradoxical title, as the unspeakable word that had to be spoken—a well-known vulgarism for the female pudenda—remained unspoken and even unwritten in the article itself, although it echoed throughout. Among other fascinating tidbits, for instance, Ms. Diski revealed that the BBC had lately been the scene of a violation of the taboo on two separate occasions as news readers had attempted and unaccountably failed to pronounce the surname of the British culture minister, Jeremy Hunt.
The Times, perhaps with a vague sense of being mocked for its prudery by one of its own contributors, appended to Ms. Diski’s article an excerpt from the New York Times Style Manual’s entry for “Obscenity, Vulgarity, Profanity” by way of explanation. After citing the principle of “civility” as the nearest it could come to a reason for the paper’s reticence, it included the following warning injunction, that “an article should not seem to be saying, ‘Look, I want to use this word, but they won’t let me.’ ” More than one reader seems to have complained about Ms. Diski’s apparent breach of the paper’s own standards, as the matter was subsequently taken up by the paper’s “Public Editor,” Arthur Brisbane, who sought an explanation from the magazine’s editor, Hugo Lindgren. He was told that the latter, together with a staffer whose official title appears to be “associate managing editor for standards”—and you wonder why the Times is going broke!—had “discussed the question and decided carefully on how to handle it.” So that’s all right then. As Mr. Brisbane put it, “I suppose we can feel assured that this loitering at the edge of propriety is not done heedlessly.”
Actually, I would have guessed that it was not. The paper’s edging up to that “edge of propriety” could not have been done without being mindful that such forbidden territory is the natural home of culture in an age whose critical vocabulary recognizes no higher term of praise than “transgressive.” Like other journalistic organs, the Times can hardly ignore this if it wants to be taken seriously. The only odd thing is that it remains so hesitant, not to mention shame-faced and apologetic, about its own departure from what are so clearly (as Ms. Diski points out) outmoded standards of propriety. Maybe this is because even the most culturally edgy, among whom the Times would clearly wish to be counted, feel a residual sense of decorum not only about the pudenda—which in Latin means “that which it is fitting to be ashamed of”—but about other physical realities that are no less real for being kept tastefully out of sight. Come to think of it, isn’t that also what women used to do with their capacity for cracking tasteless jokes?