In the logic of the chick flick, there are a few ways for a female character to be a wreck. She might be the perennial party girl who's afraid of commitment (Trainwreck); a frumpy homebody, as in My Big Fat Greek Wedding; or lonely and insecure, like Bridget Jones. In addition to the implication that their protagonists are wrecked because they are single, this brand of chick flick relies on the assumption that female characters (and women in general) are always in need of improving—they need to wear more makeup, eat better, wear less makeup, dress more flatteringly, go to the gym. The self-betterment montage is essential here: throwing out wine bottles, breaking a sweat, saying no to grilled cheese, boarding the bathroom scale, putting on contact lenses, vacuuming the rug. From Cinderella to Mean Girls, Grease to She's All That, Never Been Kissed to The Princess Diaries, the "makeover" is and always has been a fundamental part of the chick flick narrative, one necessary step towards the man of our dreams—who would have loved us, we're made to believe, even if we hadn't transformed.
Two recent chick flicks promise a different sort of transformation: in place of the treadmill, a rager. In 2015's Sisters and 2016's Bad Moms, the dissatisfied female protagonists don't set out to tighten their abs or chignons; they let loose and get fucked up. It's a promising variation on the theme of "women on the verge" getting off the verge, but the parties in these movies function much the same way as the self-improvement regimes of their predecessors: When the vodka bottle settles, our heroines are entitled to instantaneous love and miraculous financial stability. Transgression of the feminine norm (in the tame forms of getting drunk and eating pizza) is treated as a rite of passage, something that needs to be purged from these women's systems before they can enter true white suburban domestic bliss.
Sisters features two women in their early 40s, Maura (Amy Poehler) and Kate (Tina Fey), who fall on either end of the female spectrum according to which sex and stability are inversely related. Kate is a single mom who has fun and sex but no job or home—because this is Hollywood, she's not "homeless" but only "a hot mess"—and Maura is a divorced nurse with a comfortable home and expendable income; she takes care of rescue animals for fun and hasn't been laid in two years. When the two sisters find out their parents are selling their childhood home, they return to clean out their shared room and decide while they're there to throw one last house party, because Maura needs to "reset" herself and "let [her] freak flag fly." Over the course of the night, a washing machine bubbles over with detergent, the pool gets dyed blue and then collapses into a sinkhole, walls are broken, and ceilings collapse, complicating the fact that their parents have not closed the deal on the house and were planning to that weekend. When, near the end of the party, Kate discovers that Maura has been covertly housing her teenage daughter while Kate thought she was at summer camp, the sisters begin to fight, first verbally and then physically. We know the evening has fully devolved when the middle-aged women begin to wrestle in mud.
Over the course of the following week, the two sisters clean up the house and resolve their dispute, and Maura solidifies a new relationship with cute neighbor James. The movie concludes four months later, at which point Kate has established a nail salon business; Maura and James are still together; the parents' house has been sold; and the whole family gathers in the parents' new retirement home for a very merry Christmas.
Bad Moms stars Mila Kunis as Amy, a sales associate for a gourmet coffee company, mother of two middle schoolers, and reluctant PTA member who walks in on her husband having Skype sex with a woman that he's been seeing, virtually, for ten months. After she kicks her husband out of the house, we watch Amy struggling to take on the role of single working mother. She brings her dog to the vet, her kids to school, herself to work, speeding to each destination, spilling spaghetti and coffee all over herself at every startle and turn. When she finally arrives, late, at the emergency PTA meeting that has been organized by the movie's perfect-mom villain, Gwendolyn, on the topic of bake sale nutritional restrictions, Amy is exhausted, and her white blouse is soiled with coffee and Prego. She announces her resignation from the board and then retreats to a bar where she meets Carla, a neglectful and horny single mom, and Kiki, an isolated stay-at-home mom who is closely monitored by an overbearing husband. Together they make a pact: "We're killing ourselves to be perfect and it's making us insane. Screw it—let's be bad moms."
...both of these female reimaginings of the masculine party movie prominently feature the grocery store.
Thus ensues their unraveling—which consists, in one instance, of them running down the aisles of a supermarket, pouring alcohol and Kix cereal into each other's mouths. (It's notable that both of these female reimaginings of the masculine party movie prominently feature the grocery store; in Sisters, we see Maura and Kate take a trip to the market to stock up on party supplies, and it's there that they encounter their perfect-woman villain, Brinda. In male buddy films, the supplies are just there, never acquired.)
Motivated by her intense dislike of Gwendolyn, Amy decides to run against her for PTA president, and the movie reaches its climax when she hosts a blowout to promote her candidacy. As the party commences, discrete voices fade away, music pounds, dozens of extras flood the floor, and saliva is shared. Carla makes out with one mother and then another, and then those two mothers make out with each other.
Much of the laughs in both of these movies come from the (perceived) irony of placing middle-aged women—and particularly moms—in positions generally filled by young, "hot" bodies. When Samantha Bee, playing a mother and wife, takes off her shirt in Sisters, it's intended to provoke chuckles, not boners. After the house party in Bad Moms, Amy and her husband officially decide to divorce, and her daughter gets upset with her for sleeping with the father of a fellow student. The two kids and dog go to stay with their dad for the night, and Amy wallows with pizza in one hand and remote in the other—until Carla and Kiki force her off the couch and into the school gymnasium for PTA elections, where she delivers a rousing speech, validating the "bad mom" in every parent and promising to demand less, not more, of them if she is elected president. She wins the election and befriends Gwendolyn; the next day, having slacked off at work for the past week, she is offered a significant raise. Her new love interest insists on making dinner and running a bath for her the coming weekend. The movie concludes with Gwendolyn inviting the band of three moms, somehow freed for the day from their professional and parental duties, onto her husband's private plane.
Bad Moms, like Sisters, exaggerates a common fantasy: Just one wild night, with the right people, music, and substances, can help us not only forget, but actually resolve, all of our biggest problems. On the other end of the hangover lies romance for the lonely, money for the financially unstable, and empowerment for women the world over. While this is a small improvement on the makeover regime on offer in many chick flicks, Sisters and Bad Moms suggest that their characters' problems—poverty, unemployment, and a sexist distribution of domestic responsibility—will disappear practically overnight, just as soon as the afflicted women adjust their attitudes by way of vodka and junk food.
To expect anything approaching realism, or feminism, from a mediocre blockbuster may well be misguided; if Sisters is "feminist" at all, it is only insofar as it proves that women, too, can make vaguely offensive whitewashed buddy movies that are sort of funny some of the time. Bad Moms, on the other hand, encourages us to understand its narrative as being about the experiences of women in real life. Before the ending credits roll, we watch interviews of the film's starring actresses—they sit with their actual mothers, discussing their experiences both as daughters and as new mothers of their own young children. In early July, EXTRA featured a group interview with the actresses recounting their own "bad mom" stories. We are encouraged to watch Bad Moms as reflective of the experiences of both women in general and the women who star in it, but the latter are wealthy celebrities whose parenting problems probably have very little to do with those of the middle-class suburban mothers they play.
Bad Moms was created by Scott Moore and Jon Lucas, the team responsible for the canonical buddy movie The Hangover—a movie about dads gone rogue, but by no means a movie about fatherhood. In an interview, Scott Moore explained the inspiration behind Bad Moms:
Jon and I are both married to two lovely women and we both have two kids. We're kind of in the thick of it, parenting-wise. What happened was, we were both sitting around trying to think of our next script in our home offices, looking at blank monitors and watching our wives trying to live up to this idea of being the perfect mom and running ragged with the kids. We saw how intense and how much pressure that is, and we thought there was a lot of comedy there.
It's hard not to wonder what exactly Moore means by saying he is "in the thick of it, parenting-wise" when he and Lucas are sitting on a couch watching (and laughing at) their wives "running ragged with the kids." His statement is particularly ripe because Bad Moms wouldn't exist without the fathers who escort these mothers to breakdown's verge in the first place: The father of Carla's son is absent; Kiki's husband chastises her for taking even an hour away from their young children; and Amy's husband is a buffoon who jerks and jacks off, but to whom the kids still flock during Amy's fleeting bout of irresponsibility. The reason that these mothers take to beer and cheese puffs in the first place is that they are left to do the work of both parents, even when the father is still in the picture.
From one of the categories of humor available in Bad Moms, we can guess that the comedy Lucas and Moore find in their wives' parental struggles stems from their perception of these struggles as, in the scheme of things, inconsequential. Many of the movie's jokes are extended plays on the notion of "mommy wars," and on the comedic juxtaposition implicit in that phrase's very name—mommies (fun and nice) don't go to war (mean and violent)! In a PowerPoint presentation at the emergency PTA meeting, SWAT team footage is used to illustrate the role of the "bake sale cops" who are responsible for making sure all of the baked goods have only approved ingredients. Controlling moms are described as Nazis. When Amy befriends her, Gwendolyn opens up about all of her problems, among them that she suspects her brother has been recruited by ISIS and that her DVR has stopped recording the TV show Castle; Carla compares the school administration to Russia insofar as moms are discouraged from having sex with the janitor; Amy's mom-bra is compared to the compression bra worn by Brandon Teena, the brutally murdered trans man in Boys Don't Cry.
Motherhood is made into a cheap joke, at the expense of marginalized and victimized populations.
The difficulties of white suburban motherhood are reduced to DVR malfunctions and bake sale restrictions, and are then made out to be falsely equivalent with the "real world problems" of policing, fascism, terrorism, transphobic hate crimes, and totalitarianism (problems very foreign to their small suburban world), to intended comedic effect. The result is a lose-lose, and never accurate: Motherhood is made into a cheap joke, at the expense of marginalized and victimized populations.
Bad Moms lures us into believing that it will provide a critical, if limited, look at the unwieldy responsibilities of female parents. But the movie's resolution—which suggests that, in order for everything else to fall into place, all these mothers need to do is let go—implies that, all along, it was their own fervent obedience to the absurd dictates of maternal perfection that produced their misery. For the characters in this movie, who have sufficient economic resources, it may be a live possibility to just chill out. For just about everyone else, however, when it comes to the existential, physical, and psychological demands of keeping human offspring alive, relief probably will not, and cannot, come in the form of guzzling wine and spending a weekday on a private plane. Even for Amy, it's doubtful that the struggles of being a working divorced mother of two will dissolve with the introduction of an attitude, or altitude, adjustment.
We've reached a moment in pop culture when the generally regressive genre of the chick flick has turned to incorporate trendy, quasi-feminist critiques within its purview. As Manohla Dargis writes at the beginning of her review of the movie in the New York Times: "Are women trending? I guess they are!" But whereas the "problem" of singleness can, narratively, be resolved with the introduction of a lover, the "problem" of single motherhood does not have an equivalently easily scripted Hollywood resolution. Transgressing the norms of femininity onscreen does seem a good place to start in creating a chick flick about the daily struggles of real women, but the transgression has to go so much deeper, permeating the norms that govern the kinds of characters we see and sympathize with onscreen—and the kinds of endings that count as happy. When female liberation is symbolized by a private plane ride with four white, heterosexual women who make jokes at the expense of marginalized and terrorized populations, we'd be better off watching a princess ride off into the sunset.