Three of the recent movies I have seen – Something Borrowed, Bridesmaids, and Meek’s Cutoff – are seemingly unrelated. They vary in every possible way from their budgets to their settings to their overall quality. But linking them are strikingly disparate yet compelling female characters. These films are mostly written and directed by women. They are female-centric and are driven by complex female relationships that ultimately present unique representations of female identity. Above all they question the subtext of what movies try to tell us about women and the nature of movies that are marketed towards female audiences.
Something Borrowed (dir. Luke Greenfield)
You can’t take a movie like this too seriously. (This is what I keep telling myself before I take it too seriously.)
Darcy (Kate Hudson) and Rachel (Ginnifer Goodwin) have been best friends since they were kids. Now in their thirties, Darcy is about to marry Dex, a handsome, Tom Cruise look-a-like. In true messy rom-com fashion, Dex and Rachel admit their true feelings for one another and they begin a secret romance behind Darcy’s back. So much is wrong with these women. Darcy is a self-involved backstabber and Rachel is far too passive. Watching their bad decisions lead to worse decisions makes you wonder how these women ever managed stay friends for so long. The real issue is that Rachel justifies her actions because Darcy has never been a good friend to her. Something Borrowed is indicates how generic, underdeveloped, and uninteresting female characters in romantic comedies can be and make you hope that a movie much better comes along.
Bridesmaids (dir. Paul Feig)
Bridesmaids surprised many cynics when it grossed $26.2 million at the box office its opening weekend. Who knew that a movie written by women mostly starring women could make money? In an instant, smart, female-driven comedies have gone from rarely happening to being talked about as potential future projects. That’s progress people!
Bridesmaids stars SNL’s Kristen Wiig as Annie, whose life is limping along. Her business recently closed, she lives with weird British siblings, and she has an emotionally abusive relationship with the repulsive Ted (Jon Hamm). To make everything worse, her best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) announces her engagement. Annie then becomes the queen of crazy bridesmaids when she is pitted against the seemingly perfect Helen (Rose Byrne) to plan the bridal events. Hilarity, new relationships, and self-discovery ensue.
Something Borrowed and Bridesmaids share common themes: lifelong friendship and weddings. But Bridesmaids appeals to audiences because it is a raunchy and somewhat over-the-top take on female friendships and the rites of a passage that come with weddings. At its core the film is about a sweet, genuine bond between two women while Something Borrowed just mocks friendship and flounders as a result. Unfortunately, the latter is a fairly typical representation of women in big budget productions.
Meek’s Cutoff (dir. Kelly Reichardt)
Meek’s Cutoff is an independent revisionist Western that is anything but typical. It is 1845. A group of settlers are on an arduous journey across the Oregon High Desert that should last only two weeks. Their guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) has led them astray. As water becomes scarce and the journey is continually prolonged, the situation becomes dire. When they capture a Native American the film shifts from a story about survival to a story about fears of an ethnic other. Who can they trust?
The men make the decisions but the women hardly stand idly by watching everything unfold. We are never privy to what the men discuss or really do. Instead it is the wives, played by Michelle Williams, Shirley Henderson, and Zoe Kazan, daily chores’ and conversations we are given access to. Their circumstances lead them to have a strong, unprecedented solidarity with one another. The women are silent forces who fill their traditional roles but their actions drive the nuanced moral discussions present within the film. Director Kelly Reichardt often tackles the concept of identity and personal introspection in her films. What Meek’s Cutoff shows is how gender representation shifts once it crosses genre lines and budgetary demands. Because Reichardt works independently and uses a neorealist aesthetic, she articulates more complex and engaging female characters.
I read an article some time in May that questioned what female-oriented movies will be released this summer. Where are these movies? Where are the mainstay leading ladies? What films attract female audiences? Do movies geared towards women pander and insult? All of these questions come into play when addressing gender and Hollywood productions. Whether you walk into a movie theater or pop a DVD into your laptop, you should be thinking about this.
Every movie is what you make it. This is never more true than with dealing with female-centric movies. You can either take a standard rom-com like Something Borrowed lightly or not. (Though I genuinely do fear the possible sequel.) Bridesmaids is a necessary stepping stone for female driven comedies and it will be exciting to watch what its stars (Melissa McCarthy) do next. And the bottom line is that if you want to see nuanced female-centric films like Meek’s Cutoff, then you have to seek them out. They aren’t easy to find but if you have access to a good indie theater, to a film festival, to a Netflix account – that is where you should look.
Have you seen any of these movies? What do you think about their representation of female characters and the relationship between women and Hollywood in general? Sound off in the comments.
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