2011 brought forth three major release films that centered on the concept of the womanchild, a character that was previously ushered to the supporting cast, if she existed at all. Clearly, there are hundreds of lovable manchildren in films, a character that Judd Apatow, Kevin Smith and Todd Phillips have built their careers upon fostering. But rarely do we see a female protagonist who is emotionally stunted, who lives in self-centered squalor and works a bullshit job just to pass the time and pay for crap she doesn’t need. The thing is, I know tons of women like that in real life.
It’s interesting that Hollywood often portrays women as more “together” than men. Obviously, this is not the case—that I even need to write the words “women are as fucked up as men” is the most bizarre, backwards evidence of sexism ever. Hey, we’re messy and lazy too, fellas! We are women, see us suck! Even the female villains in films are villainous in a very organized, responsible way. Screwed up women in movies aren’t screwed up because of arrested development; they’re screwed up because they’ve developed faster than the men in their lives. They’re ready to get engaged, to get married, to get pregnant, and being denied those things long enough leaves them crazy and manipulative. After the villains and the baby-crazed, we're left with the calm, beautiful, patient woman to whom the schlubby dude eventually aspires after he learns a few lessons. Women in movies are generally evil or perfect, Madonna or whore, etc. etc. You’ve heard it all before.
So what changed last year?
Kristen Wiig’s Annie in Bridesmaids certainly helped pave the way. She’s believable and messy and totally charming despite her obscene devotion to that which is bad for her. Annie lost her bakery and her boyfriend and quickly gave up on anything that matters. She lives in a crummy apartment with terrible roommates, she regularly subjects herself to unfulfilling sex with a douchebag, she has a shitty job that she subconsciously sabotages on a daily basis, and she absolutely panics at the news that her best friend is getting married to a good guy.
Lillian is leaving Annie behind, and Annie cannot abide it, so she becomes the worst maid of honor in the history of matrimony. She ruins every aspect of the pre-nuptial routine, and she will tell you it was all due to unhappy accidents, but the truth is that Annie simply does not take care of her shit. Her tail lights have been out for over a year, and she never replaces them. She flees from a nice guy who likes her for who she is. She makes massive, embarrassing scenes and moves back in with her mother, and all the while we are rooting for her, praying for her to get it together because dammit, Annie is better than this.
One month later, Cameron Diaz’s Elizabeth Halsey from Bad Teacher hit the scene. Lack of motivation and emotional growth aside, Halsey is completely different from Annie, mostly because she is straight evil. She’s also a cartoon—she loses her sugar daddy and wrangles a job as a teacher, wooing a wealthy colleague all so she can pay for new tits. She is shallow, bitchy and self-absorbed, and—unlike Annie—we’re never given any motivation for Elizabeth to be like this, only that she always has been. For that reason, there is no sense of redemption, and I find that refreshing. No, this is not a believable character, but she’s a new character for a woman, and that’s rad. All Halsey wants to do is get stoned and marry rich. That is literally her only motivation for the entire film. There is someone shitty hidden deep inside of me who can totally relate.
Halsey is a truly terrible human being, and I think that’s pretty great. Reviews of Bad Teacher were all over the map, with many reviewers condemning the film as sexist, showcasing abysmal gender politics. I find that sort of reasoning utterly wrong-headed. Bad Teacher isn’t misogynist because it tells the story of an abominable woman. It’s misanthropic, sure, and yes, Halsey spends the entire film hankering after a man. But she wants a man for gross, selfish reasons, and she doesn’t care who that man is, so long as he has money. That’s new! And hey—we can’t all be wise and tender, right?
Charlize Theron as Mavis Gary in Young Adult is the most recent stunted woman to enter the fray, and she is my absolute favorite. Mavis has more of Annie’s depth—no way could you call this woman a cartoon—but she boasts Halsey’s confidence. Annie’s an adorable, insecure space cadet and Halsey’s a diabolical caricature, but Mavis? Mavis is a fucking woman. She’s a mostly detestable woman, mind you, but she is dauntlessly so. Nothing intimidates Mavis or sways her from her single-minded and remarkably selfish goal: to break up the happy marriage of her high school sweetheart, who has just had a baby with his sweet wife. Is Mavis plotting this because she loves him? Not remotely. He’s a pleasant, harmless tool and Mavis is much, much cooler than he is, but he knew her when she was at her best, and she needs to feel that way again. Not her kindest, of course, but her most popular, most beautiful, most successful. IN HIGH SCHOOL. Terrifying, right? There but for the grace of being a total loser in high school go most of us.
Theron’s portrayal is the best of the bunch. She stomps through the movie with utter stoicism, yanking at her fake hair, constantly ripping off and then re-applying Nu Bra pads to her breasts, shoulders slumped and mascara smudged under her intensely dead eyes. Mavis suffers from depression and alcoholism, and that has damaged her prospects immeasurably, to be sure, but what Mavis most suffers from is being a grade-A asshole.
Mavis actually experiences the least redemption of the three women; Halsey, while still a jerk, learns to care about a somewhat cool guy and decides to support her students. Annie gets her shit together and falls in love with the good guy. Mavis’ lesson comes in learning to not envy the happy losers who live in her old small town. She is Mavis Gary, goddammit, and she is better than everybody. The best Mavis ever accomplishes is to treat her crippled friend (Patton Oswalt) like a human and finally, FINALLY, start treating her dog like a living creature instead of an accessory.
Despite the fact that Mavis is an asshole, we believe in her. We want her to win. Now, we don’t want her to win back her high school sweetheart, for godssake, because he’s hideously lame, but we want her to throw back her shoulders, apply some lipstick, buckle up those hot stilettos and march out of that shitty little town, back to her filthy apartment in the sort of big city, and write something decent that actually belongs to her. That we believe she is capable of this and we want her to achieve it is testament to Charlize Theron. Theron gives a performance like no other, the best of her career, making us legitimately care for this total dick of a human.
Diablo Cody’s brilliant script has much to do with it too, of course, as did Kristen Wiig’s and Annie Mumolo’s wonderful screenplay for Bridesmaids. Clearly, the reason Annie and Mavis read as real women is that they were written by real women. Bad Teacher was written by Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg, and while I dig Halsey, she’s not exactly grounded in female (or human) reality.
So what happened last year that we went from a desert of Madonnas and whores to a rich landscape of authentic, flawed women? Could it be that after a more crowded glut than usual of Adam Sandlers and Zach Galifianakises and Wilson Brothers and Kevin Jameses over the past twenty years, audiences are ready for something new? Not that Bridesmaids invented the womanchild—Scarlett O’Hara may have been the first, emotionally petulant and yet likable as she was. And of course we’ve had all the charming klutzes, the Sandra Bullocks and Zooey Deschanels and Meg Ryans, who are imperfect in that they are adorably spazzy yet always look flawless.
But it’s been a long time since we’ve had so many immature, selfish women protagonists in major movies at one time, and as an often immature and occasionally selfish woman myself, I say keep bringing ‘em on. Let's shake this mother up. Ideally the next step, of course, would be to have more actresses that look like Melissa McCarthy instead of Kristen Wiig, Cameron Diaz, and Charlize Theron. They're all great actresses, but there are so many great actresses out there who aren't tall, willowy blondes. Give them a chance, the way you've given a chance to Kevin James, Zach Galifianakis and Seth Rogen.
But for now, looking back on 2011, I find myself wanting to give Hollywood a pat on the back for the first time in a long while. Well done, everybody. We are women. Hear us make poor decisions.