Bridesmaids appears to be the filmmaker's mea culpa to the women of America. But he has no reason to atone.
The unofficial mantra of the media blitz surrounding the new movie Bridesmaids seems to be: "Women Are Funny Too...Really!" During a recent Tonight Show appearance, producer Judd Apatow—who has been criticized in some quarters for marginalizing women in his films—called it, his first movie to focus mainly on women, the funniest film in his extensive oeuvre. And though he has vocally defended his record on female characters, it's hard not to view Bridesmaids (written by Saturday Night Live breakout star Kristen Wiig and directed by Paul Feig, co-creator of the beloved TV series Freaks and Geeks) as his mea culpa to the women of America. Presumably, he'd like to put to rest charges that the women in his films are underdeveloped vehicles for male transformation.
It remains to be seen whether the Apatow formula of raunch humor tempered with personal growth will translate with an all-female cast. But regardless of how Bridesmaids is received, Apatow has no need to atone. While his film canon is undeniably dude-centric, the lady characters he's brought to the screen are more complex and fully realized than his detractors claim.
Criticisms against Apatow tend to cut both ways: that the female characters in his films either lack distinctive personalities, or have too much. A common thread of complaint is that the women are flimsy props that function only to prod the slovenly and infantile male protagonists away from an existence of video gaming and pot-smoking. Popular feminist blog Jezebel has written extensively on the Apatow critiques, and his response to them. One article stops short of calling him a sexist, but contends that his movies are guilty of shortchanging women and "reinforcing the kind of annoying idea that women are more grown-up than men—or that they have to be."
However, when these women cut loose and reveal their own messy idiosyncrasies and neurosis, they're dismissed as behaving with "reflexive shrewishness." This according to a scathing article in the culture and lit journal n+1, which claims that the women are, "ever vexed about their diminishing horizons and fading looks. The men need to be tamed, and the women gain purpose from the taming, marching the men through a program of self-improvement consisting of grooming, gainful employment, relinquishing their toys, and disavowing their fraternal bonds."
I imagine charges of shrewishness refer to scenes like the ones in the Apatow-penned and directed Knocked Up where Katherine Heigl's character kicks Seth Rogen's stoned slacker out of her car in the middle of an argument. Or when Apatow's real-life wife Leslie Mann rails against a nightclub doorman who turns her away. ("You're old, she's pregnant," the bouncer explains.)
But I love the club scene. While obviously exaggerated for comedic effect, it stands as one of the funniest and most emotionally authentic in the film. It highlights Mann's comedy chops, and also I find it refreshing to watch a woman gracelessly chafing against maturity. It says more about the critics than the filmmaker that any scene in which a woman exhibits justified frustration (Rogen does, after all, opt to save his bong in the middle of an earthquake, rather than his pregnant girlfriend), or spectacularly loses her cool relegates her to the role of shrill harpy.
As to the criticism that women in Apatow films function only to cajole the guys into adulthood, it is true that Catherine Keener's primary role in The 40-Year-Old Virgin is to push Steve Carell's character out of man-child territory and into a mature relationship (selling off his vast collection of action figures in the process). As played by Keener, eBay entrepreneur Trish is a charmingly frazzled single mother with a less-than-stellar romantic history. But while she may be the more together one in the pairing, they have an easy rapport. In contrast to the head-scratching nature of Heigl's attraction to Rogen in Knocked Up, it's not hard to understand why Trish might be drawn to Carell's warm, openhearted virgin. Just look at the scenes where Carell breaks out his nerdy magic tricks or sweetly bonds with Trish's older daughter (Kat Denning) over their mutual romantic inexperience. (It's also worth noting that although Jane Lynch only appears briefly in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, she steals every one of those scenes from Carell).
In Apatow's darkest film, Funny People, Mann's character is initially introduced as the over-idealized savior: the former love who will rescue Adam Sandler from his dissipated lifestyle. But her backstory becomes more complicated as the film goes on (and on and on), and it's revealed that she is also looking for some salvation—in her case, from a troubled marriage and a comfortable suburban life that's grown stale. In an ending that subverts romantic comedy expectations, they mutually realize that this is not a suitable foundation on which to build a relationship, and go their separate ways. Droll comedian Aubrey Plaza also has a strong (albeit small) showing in the film, playing the object of Rogen's crush. Rogen's struggling writer is upset when Plaza's character sleeps with his roommate, but in a smartly written and incisive scene she calls him on his unfair reaction, pointing out that they've yet to go on a single date.
Until now, all of the films that Apatow has written, directed, or produced—from The 40-Year-Old Virgin to Superbad—have covered the well-trod ground of guys lurching ambivalently toward adult responsibility. But in contrast to other bro-tastic comedies like The Hangover, which treats marriage to barely-glimpsed, angry women like an impending trip to the gallows, Apatow actually takes care in developing credibly messy and layered relationships. (Even if these relationships often take a backseat to fraternal bonding and discussions about the homoerotic implications of listening to Coldplay.) His films tend to approach the world of women in much the way his clueless male protagonists do: fumbling, but well intentioned.
Does the coupling of schlubby Rogen with the far more attractive Heigl strain the boundaries of plausibility? Certainly. But no more than the wish fulfillment inherent in almost any romantic comedy. Rom-com auteur Nancy Meyers has, for instance, built her own distinctive brand around women of a certain age who repose in houses ripped from the pages of Pottery Barn catalogs whilst juggling multiple suitors—including, in one case, a much-younger doctor played by Keanu Reeves. It seems that a lot of ire directed at Apatow isn't so much about his treatment of women, but rather that he has the temerity to draw so much material from his own, specifically male point of view. It may be valid to critique his limited scope, or to feel that his particular flavor of fratty humor is approaching its sell-by date, but that hardly equals a systematic disenfranchisement of women.
It's also self-defeating to focus on alleged sexism by Apatow, rather than celebrating the progress being made by hilarious women. Wiig is the star, co-writer (with collaborator Annie Mumolo) and co-producer of Bridesmaids—which makes the film not just Apatow's first major foray into girly humor but, more importantly, a major step forward for women-led comedies. Tina Fey pretty much runs the world these days, and fellow Saturday Night Live alum Amy Poehler helms the funniest sitcom on TV right now (Parks and Recreation). With such a wealth of talented comediennes on the scene, who seem to have transcended the infuriating "funny for a girl" modifier, it's worth asking if we really need Apatow to remake himself into a champion for women in comedy.
Early reviews indicate that Bridesmaids is indeed funny, and I hope that it's successful because I'd very much enjoy the opportunity to see more lady-centric ensemble comedies that aren't Sex and the City. But if Apatow chooses to return to his self-created world of guy bonding and penis jokes, there'll be no hard feelings.