In the 1930’s, filmmakers were provided with a set of rules that dictated “acceptable public discourse”, that is, a way of defining and evaluating obscenity and vulgarity on screen. By the 1970’s, these regulations grew largely inadequate; film and obscenity became far more difficult to label and restrict. This desire to censor, categorize, and “test” film according to a set of stenciled rules still exists in the socio-political cinematic discourse of today. Some film-evaluation processes like “The Bechdel Test” have become wildly popular amongst the masses; spectators and film critics alike have picked apart movies according to Alison Bechdel’s loose system of female filmic representation. It seems that the general public has no issue when it comes to analyzing gender or genre alone; only when the two mix do certain anxieties arise. Perhaps the best example of this is Paul Feig’s Bridesmaids, a movie that championed the female gross-out comedy and was met with largely positive reviews after its release in 2011. Ever still, critics and spectators were unable to decide how to deal with the film’s anal obsession, the crude and excessive lower body humor that drives the narrative. Bridesmaids is about hitting bottom–real and false lows, male assholes, and women who lose their shit, both physically and quite literally. Through it all, the women of Bridesmaids beg us to “look away”, but why? What are women allowed to do onscreen that warrants watching? How are we to evaluate female gross-out alongside examples of the masculine obscene? Feig’s film offers a variety of fresh answers, and in doing so, allows for a greater exploration of the female gross-out genre as a whole, a modality of analysis that we can call: The Rectal Test.
At its core, Bridesmaids is a film about bottoms; and yet, when we first meet Annie, the film’s protagonist, she is on top. Straddling a silly-looking Jon Hamm (Ted), Annie feigns sexual gratification; she makes faces as the camera captures her upper body, leaving the audience to imagine the happenings below. Shortly before the movie’s two minute mark, however, Annie falls to the bottom. We see her lower body sprawled out beneath Jon Hamm, her legs kicking and flying as he assumes the top position. This opener, while brief and exaggerated, immediately demonstrates the film’s fascination with the female lower bodily stratum. Annie’s struggling beneath Ted is the comedic climax of the scene, her legs and lower body the main attraction. And so, unsurprisingly, the movie continues to preoccupy itself with bottoms, particularly Annie’s bottom.
The first time that Annie’s bottom is mentioned outright, she has returned home to spend time with her mother after losing her bakeshop, boyfriend, and learning that her best friend is engaged to be married. Annie’s mother says, “Maybe this is your bottom. But I’m telling you, hitting bottom is good. Cause it’s only up from there. Positive message”. Bottoms, while associated with the low, are framed in a positive context. The low is significant in that it can give rise to the high, Annie can only go up. This dynamic reflects a theory that William Paul explores in his work Laughing, Screaming: Modern Hollywood Horror and Comedy. In his section on “Dirty Discourse” Paul discusses how there is often “confusion between the seemingly high and the seemingly low, since the preservation of what was low in the past often becomes part of the high culture” (Paul, 45). This malleability and easy reversal between the conventionally high and the conventionally low is a concept that Bridesmaids teases throughout. The film juxtaposes the sanctity of marriage with gross-out lower body humor and vulgarity, calling into question what we consider as truly high and holy versus truly low in gender and genre.
The film defines “true bottom” outright about mid-way through the narrative. After being kicked out of her apartment, Annie returns home to her mother once again. She says, “Remember when you thought I hit bottom? That wasn’t bottom”. She then unloads her things from the car and brings them inside. Annie’s moving back into her childhood home– a transformation from womanhood back to girlhood– is categorized as an ultimate low, a true bottom. All the while, it seems that this bottom, while associated with Annie’s life, does not truly belong to her as a woman or a girl. Her “hitting bottom” is very much the result of the men in her life–past and present. Annie’s boyfriend has left her, stripped her of her life savings, and she is left to make a meager living at a local jewelry store. Annie occasionally sleeps with Ted, but their tenuous relationship only sends her spiraling toward a further low. Thus, it seems, that while the film wants to preoccupy itself with Annie’s bottom, the men in Bridesmaids are the true assholes.
The word “asshole” is used dozens of times in the film, describing men in almost every instance. At the bridesmaids’ bachelorette lunch, Megan talks about her brother Doug, saying, “I love him, but he’s a fucking asshole. I think we can all agree on that, right?”. Earlier in the film, Lillian gives Ted the same label, telling Annie, “He also told you you need dental work. He’s an asshole!”. Finally, in one of the most recognized and discussed scenes of the film, Annie gets into a quarrel with a male flight attendant, and after being asked to leave the first-class area multiple times, she shouts “Auf Wiedersehen, asshole!”. This association, while blatant, is taken to further extremity when Annie and Lillian get into a screaming match at the bridal shower. Lillian, the bride-to-be, screams, “I GOT MY ASSHOLE BLEACHED…And I LOVE my new asshole!” In the world of Bridesmaids, men are assholes and women love their assholes– in marriage, these assholes are bleached, rid of all color and texture. In fact, the movie’s men even admit to this categorization. After Annie drops a carrot on the ground, Officer Rhodes rushes to pick it up and says, “I’m anal”. The film may be fixated on Annie’s bottom, but it is the men of Bridesmaids who are the true asses.
With men as bleached, uptight, assholes, the women of Bridesmaids are left to handle all that is messy– namely, the film’s shit. Like the film’s close association between men and assholes, Bridesmaids continually pairs women with shit, doling out the narrative’s most grotesque bathroom humor its female characters. Annie needs to “fight for [her] shitty life”, and she needs her tennis partner, Carol, to do the same, yelling “Come on [Carol]! Get your shit together!” Megan, in planning Lillian’s bachelorette party, says, “we better blow this shit out…Lillian…is probably…realizing ‘holy shit, I’ve got to spend the rest of my life with Doug’”. When Annie tries the pink lemonade at Lillian’s bridal shower, she remarks, “Shit. That is fresh!”, and shortly after she speaks to Lillian, saying, “ever since you got engaged, everything has turned to shit”. The film straightforwardly and unapologetically links womanhood, particularly womanhood in marriage, to grotesque excrement, and in doing so, overturns a long history of female filmic retentiveness.
William Paul discusses this history in Laughing, Screaming, noting that “By the beginning of the 1970s…Male stars increasingly entered bathrooms specifically to urinate and could even be seen playing out whole scenes while standing at urinals. Women, for the most part, were more discrete” (Paul, 37). The only exception to this trend is Jane Fonda, a woman who pushed the boundaries of the female gross-out comedy genre. Paul writes, “In perhaps the most extreme inversion of Hollywood glamour, Jane Fonda holds a conversation with George Segal in Fun With Dick and Jane (1977) while sitting on a toilet with her skirt hiked up over her knees. Fonda…jabber[s] nonstop over the whizzing undercurrent of her urine hitting the toilet bowl” (Paul, 37-8). Despite this groundbreaking demonstration, however, Paul emphasizes that conventionally, “with an occasional exception like Jane Fonda, the bathroom as a place of elimination seems to belong to men” (Paul, 38). Almost thirty-five years later, Bridesmaids makes a powerful effort to alter this trend.
In addition to offering a lingual tie between women and excrement, the film provides a blatant, literal and living demonstration of female anal elimination. After a Brazilian lunch, Helen takes Lillian, Annie, and the bridesmaids to go dress shopping at “Belle En Blanc”. When the women enter, they are greeted by a saleswoman named Whitney who croons, “Welcome to heaven”. The shop is decorated to fit this divine description– from the carpet to the walls, the place is dangerously and decidedly white. As Megan puts it, the shop is “some classy shit”. With near-perfect timing, Megan’s observation marks the beginning of a storm. The bridesmaids begin to try-on dresses and, in the process, find themselves struck with food poisoning. Becca and Rita are shown vomiting on top of one another, their excess painting the shop’s pristine bathroom floor; simultaneously, Megan relieves herself in the bathroom sink, screaming “It’s comin’ out of me like lava! Don’t fucking look at me!!”. In a final, explosive climax, Lillian– wedding dress and all– runs out of the shop and into the street, only to stop in the middle of moving traffic and yell, “It’s happening, it’s happening, it’s happening…it happened”. Annie adds, “Oh, you’re really doing it aren’t ya? You’re shittin’ in the street”. In a fantastic juxtaposition of the high and the low– the bridesmaids desecrate one of the film’s holiest settings. The women who have been trying so desperately to get their shit together, end up literally shitting together.
This graphic episode is, to put things in Annie’s terms, “fresh shit”. Bridesmaids finally provides a straightforward filmic representation of let-it-all-out womanhood. Unlike most films, Bridesmaids does not diminish women to just asses, but brings fully-functional female asses to the screen. Feig introduces women who completely and spectacularly lose their shit. The bridesmaids open up about their bottoms and speak freely of their assholes; they do so in a wide variety of social contexts, mixing their vulgarity and dirty discourse with the purity of the marriage plot and setting. It is this juxtaposition, or rather, this combination, that demonstrates a certain self-consciousness on behalf of Feig and the film’s place in the gross-out genre. In pairing female excrement and anality with the holiness of marriage, Feig fuses the high and the low, the physical and the spiritual. This fusion reflects the work of theorist Mikhail Bakhtin and his commentary on “grotesque realism”. William Paul explains Bakhtin’s thoughts, writing “Official culture sees the high, the “noblest” aspects of experience (mind and spirit) as superior to the low, the body in its most grossly physical terms (the mouth, the genitals, the anus)”. Bakhtin believes, however, that it is “precisely the point of grotesque art…to level this hierarchy by reversing it, by elevating the “material bodily lower stratum…the essential topographical element of the bodily hierarchy turn[s] upside down” (Paul, 46). Thus, Feig’s Bridesmaids, in elevating the physical vulgarity of womanhood and female excrement, manages to bring about a hierarchical shift; his work places female messiness alongside the purity of the marriage plot, and frames men as uptight, bleached, and anal. Women are the expulsive, active agents.
It is important to consider the effect of Feig’s placing women in this position; how does allowing female expulsiveness onscreen alter the genre and purpose of the film? With men as uptight, anal retentive assholes, and women as the free, vulgar agents, there seems to be a reversal of conventional gender roles. In allowing women to be messy and crude and men to be bleached and anal, the film seems to lose it’s status as a “women’s film” and becomes a sort of “manly-women’s film”. In bleaching, marrying, and cursing about their male assholes, women assume a position of masculine, phallic control.
This phallic positioning can be better understood through an exploration of William Paul’s work on Charlie Chaplin. Paul asserts, that while Charlie Chaplin is not often known for its anality, Chaplin’s City Lights demonstrates the power of venerable lower-body vulgarity, particularly in its exploration of phallic versus anal aggression. In the film, there are many instances in which Chaplin’s lower body is used for comedic purposes. The opening of the film plays with phallic penetration as Chaplin falls from a public statute, his lower body is later comedically unraveled by his love interest, and in a final, brutal scene, Chaplin is bullied by newsboys; the two pull “a rag of torn underwear through the anus hole in Charlie’s pants. With this one gesture, both the sword-impalement from the opening sequence and the blind girl’s inadvertent baring of Charlie’s privates are recalled” (Paul, 61). Paul continues to explain the significance of these scenes, asserting that “the film sets an odd play of anal aggression (which the opening makes something passive by always assigning to accident) against phallic aggression (which is understood as sight)” (Paul, 61). Thus, the anal or the ass is associated with a certain passiveness of accident, and the phallic is associated with sight, a form of active control.
In this sense, perhaps Bridesmaids is a “manly-women’s film”. Feig’s women are more often placed in a role of phallic aggression than their male counterparts; men remain anal and assholes, passive, while women handle most of the film’s activity. A fitting example of this positioning occurs when the women board a flight to Vegas. While onboard, Megan speaks to the man next to her, suspicious that he may be an air marshall concealing a weapon. She says, “I gotta know where you keep the gun man. Ankle, hip, lower back? You don’t…between the cheeks?”. Jon, the presumed air marshall replies, “No, I don’t stick a gun up my butt. That’s stupid…I don’t have a gun for you to put up my ass to make your point!”. In this scene, Megan assumes the role of phallic aggression, watching the air marshall and threatening to search his ass for a concealed weapon. Jon, the man, openly admits to not having a gun, not having any form of phallic protection; he emphasizes that he just has his butt, and nothing to stop Megan from continually pestering, watching, and commanding him. This phallic reversal places Megan in a place of masculinized femininity, a “manly woman-ness” that is transferable and recognizable among each of the film’s women and their passive, anal male counterparts. In commanding, bleaching, marrying, and– in this case– searching male assholes, the women of Bridesmaids demonstrate a certain phallic aggression that reverses the traditional hierarchy of male activity and female passivity. This paired with the women’s anal expulsiveness flips the traditional binaries of male messiness and female anal retentive repression.
Conversely, while the film’s plot places men in a passive position as “assholes”, Bridesmaids can still be read, in some sense, as a “men’s film”– that is, as a film that caters to the male spectator. As groundbreaking as the dress-shop-shit-scene may be, the bridesmaids’ explosive loss of control is still very much an accidental anal display– and male spectators gain a certain phallic power in merely watching this play out onscreen. The film’s women, thus, are diminished, once again, to a place of passive positioning. As powerful as the women are onscreen with their male assholes and phallic conquering, there will always be men offscreen watching their messy vulnerable bottoms.
Taking this spectatorship into consideration, it is not coincidental that the film so desperately begs us to “look away”. As Laura Mulvey asserts in her work Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, “Pleasure in looking [is]…split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy on to the female figure…women are… coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness” (Mulvey, 11). The women of Bridesmaids are aware of this dynamic; they understand that they are being watched in all of their messy femininity, and thus, repeatedly request that the audience “look away, look away”. When this request does not work, the women are more upfront, yelling “don’t fucking look at me!”. While the film does not overthrow the phallic power imbalance between the male spectator and the female ass onscreen, it at the very least, provides women who are aware of this spectatorship.
Despite the inherent pleasure and power that accompanies male spectatorship, Bridesmaids was not well-received by male critics. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone is perhaps the most outspoken male critic on Feig’s work, writing, “Frankly, the only time Bridesmaids loses its footing is when it acts like The Hangover in drag. Guys and gross make a better fit. Who needs to see bridesmaids puking up lunch and shitting their pants?”. While Travers’s review is harsh, he brings up some crucial questions to consider in evaluating the female gross-out genre as a whole. Is Bridesmaids a “manly women’s” film, like The Hangover in drag? Can one compare “guys and gross” with “girly gross-out”?
Based on the very etymology of the words “gender” and “genre”, it seems difficult to compare the female gross-out film alongside that of the male. Both “gender” and “genre” stem from the same French classical root: gendre. In translation, gendre relates to a kind of species or character. In its verbal form, however, gendrer means to beget, give rise, or give birth. In this sense, to gender a genre, is to birth a new species or character. In gendering gross-out, as Bridesmaids does, the film creates a new species, a new entity or genre. Male and female gross-out are thus, split at the root, each a distinct entity and genre of their own. Because of this difference, it seems unhelpful to compare the two side-by-side. As William Paul asserts, both have a certain “gloriousness in their grossness”, but it seems unfair to make assertions as Travers does, that “guys and gross make a better fit”. As a whole, gross-out comedy is not about whether certain grotesque dynamics “fit” or “work” within a film; gross-out is not meant to satisfy or please. Instead it is about the mere “reveal [of] what a culture thinks may be made public as opposed to what should be kept private (Paul, 38). Gross-out comedy “functions as a way of bringing out into the open precisely those things we have most been inclined to repress “(Paul, 45). It does not matter whether Bridesmaids or The Hangover better “fits” the gross-out genre; all that is significant is the fact that the film unapologetically brings female grossout to the screen.
Thus, it seems that my initial proposal of something like “A Rectal Test”, that is a modality of evaluating “successful” female or male gross-out comedy is something of an irrelevant and invalid prospect. Venerable vulgarity requires no testing, for the sheer introducing of the grotesque onscreen warrants appreciation. Feig’s Bridesmaids revels in the spectacle of female vulgarity, and in doing so, proves how “gross-out films take us back to the origins of spectacle in ritual. In viewing them, we experience an art that openly defines itself as public spectacle, an art of festivity that has as its chief aim the inducing of celebratory frenzy (Paul, 64). This “celebratory frenzy” is perhaps the best descriptor for Feig’s Bridesmaids. In pairing the wild excitement of gross-out comedy with the just as wild and exciting prospect of marriage and wedding planning, Feig crafts a celebratory frenzy of let-it-all-out womanhood that reflects a true awareness of the film’s place in the gross-out genre.
Bridesmaid’s shifts focus between male assholes and female bottoms, placing men and women in active and passive roles throughout the film. In doing so, Feig fuses the low and the high– the lowness of the film’s anal fixation meets and meshes with the high expense, decorum, and celebration associated with marriage, leveling the hierarchy of the physical and spiritual throughout grossout and emulating the very same dynamic explored by William Paul and Mikhail Bakhtin in their evaluation of grotesque realism and venerable vulgarity. Feig’s “leveling”, however, goes a step beyond that of Bakhtin and Paul. In shifting between male anality and female anality, gendered passivity and activity, and male and female phallic spectatorship, Feig attempts to level not only the hierarchy between the spiritual high and the physical low, but between male and female dominance in film. Bridesmaids thus, “levels the playing field” of gross-out comedy; not in that the film allows for the side-by-side comparison of the male and female grotesque, but in emphasizing that both can exist and deserve veneration within their own separate spheres.
Bridesmaids. Dir. Paul Feig. Universal, 2011.
Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 19 Dec. 2016.
Mulvey, Laura. “”Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”.” Screen (Sep 1975).
Paul, William. “”Laughing, Screaming” 2.” Laughing Screaming (1994).: 36-64.