The now-famous Bechdel Test, created by cartoonist and graphic novelist Alison Bechdel, stipulates the following for a movie to qualify:
1. It has to have at least two [named] women in it.
2. Who talk to each other.
3. About something besides a man.
The test is surprisingly difficult to pass; as of last week, the database at www.bechdeltest.com contained 4,040 movies from all of cinematic history. We might add a further stipulation — call it the Wiig-Feig Rider, after the performer and director who blew it up — that audiences are only rarely inclined, or permitted, to watch movies about female friendships. The male buddy film is practically a romantic genre in its own right — meet cute, bicker, blow up stuff, save the world, hit that bong, roll credits. But substitute women for men, and audiences begin to get jittery. What are they going to talk about for all that time?
“Bridesmaids” (2011), directed by Paul Feig and written by and starring Kristen Wiig, once and for all demolished the canard, plumped by the likes of Christopher Hitchens, that women cannot be funny. “Bridesmaids” proved that female-centered comedies were under no requirement to be any more polite or demure than their male counterparts. Who could possibly forget Melissa McCarthy and her fellow bridesmaids laying waste to a bridal-shop bathroom after an unfortunate food-poisoning incident? “Bridesmaids” cleaned up at the box office, with domestic grosses of nearly $170 million, leading to successors like last year’s “Bachelorette” and “Pitch Perfect.”
Moreover, it has revived a micro-genre we might informally refer to as the female buddy film, in which women are the heroes, and men are the scolds and drips or absent. Feig’s followup to “Bridesmaids,” “The Heat,” pairs McCarthy, as a Boston police detective, with Sandra Bullock, an FBI agent — one hot-tempered, one standoffish — who strike up an unlikely partnership. It opens Friday. The subject matter does not sound particularly new, at least to anyone who has seen “48 Hrs.” or “Lethal Weapon,” but then the female buddy film has always been notable primarily for the gender reversals it applies to familiar stories.
The genre goes back at least as far as 1939’s “The Women,” directed by George Cukor, from the play by Clare Boothe Luce. “The Women” is one of the few movies of its era that, surface attributes aside, is all about how women do — and, more often, do not — get along with each other. “The Women” delights in cattiness and competition in a world entirely about, and entirely devoid of, men. Joan Crawford’s calculating shopgirl pegs the film’s characters precisely when she cuttingly observes that “there’s a name for you ladies, but it isn’t used in high society, outside a kennel.”
More modern iterations of the female buddy film pit women against a masculine world intent on crimping their style and cutting off all avenues of escape. “Thelma & Louise” (1991), written by Callie Khouri and directed by Ridley Scott, is a buddy picture born out of tragedy. “Thelma” is a revenge fantasy that is also a stealth comedy, its humor emerging from the deliriously giddy comeuppances dealt out by Geena Davis’s Thelma and Susan Sarandon’s Louise to an array of bad husbands, cops, and truck drivers.
We are continually taken aback by women’s presence in stories — in genres — from which they have traditionally been excluded. If “Thelma & Louise” is an outlaw western in disguise, “A League of Their Own” (1992), also starring Davis, is a sepia-toned sports film about 1940s women’s baseball constructed like a 1940s film: “Pride of the Yankees,” with Geena Davis as a gawky, comic Lou Gehrig. Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell are the paired second bananas here, their wisecracking (Madonna suggests a well-timed wardrobe malfunction to boost sagging attendance) livening up an occasionally somber drama of sibling rivalry.
Stories about friendship between women are often secret tragedies, breakup stories in all but name. Jim McKay’s “Our Song” (2000) and Terry Zwigoff’s “Ghost World” (2001) are about the perilously shifting sands of friendship, of the surprising journey from best friends to ex-friends. One is a work of delicate realism, and the other is based on a comic book, but both share an interest in the emotional lives of teenage girls not expressly limited to their choice of prom dates. “Our Song” is composed of desultory summer-vacation conversations and petty frustrations, of band practice and impromptu lessons in dirty Spanish. In “Ghost World” Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) are uncool mean girls, interested in cultivating oddities of all sorts, from Indian dance music to the potential Satanists in the next diner booth. None of it is enough to keep them from drifting apart — to other friends, other places, other lives.
Other, distinctly less realistic buddy films are about the magic of indestructible friendships. The two “Sex and the City” films, while serving as catnip to poison-penned film critics, were enormously successful tributes to feminine solidarity. And the two “Charlie’s Angels” films, utterly nonsensical plots notwithstanding, are wildly enjoyable as paeans to the joys of dressing up — as mullet-clad crime-scene investigators and dirt bikers and pigtailed Scandinavian backpackers. They are fantasies fabulously ungrounded in reality, sending their women to Dubai and Mongolia as an expression of their girl-power whimsy. Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers,” with its quartet of bikini-clad college girls stealing and scamming their way to a magical spring-break adventure, feints in the same direction before delighting in watching their dream vacation unravel, and the seemingly irrevocable bonds between friends unfurl in a haze of drugs and guns and James Franco’s grill.
“Bridesmaids” and its successors (most of them seeming to star Rebel Wilson) have ushered in a new kind of female buddy picture, whose female characters are not required to have any redeeming qualities whatsoever. Primness is out, like last year’s fashions. In-crowd stories like the a- cappella comedy “Pitch Perfect” are about the diabolical pleasures of nastiness. Cattiness, obnoxious behavior, and self-absorption are the order of the day. Regan (Kirsten Dunst) and Katie (Isla Fisher) rip their overweight friend’s wedding dress after hopping into it together to snap a picture in “Bachelorette” and proceed to snort cocaine, publicly refer to the bride’s bulimia, overdose on Xanax, and challenge each other to lick a Manhattan sidewalk. The broad physical comedy of “Bridesmaids,” “Bachelorette,” and “Pitch Perfect” only partially masks their interest in the prickly side of female friendships — the hurt feelings and competitiveness and casual cruelty that are the bread and butter of the female buddy picture. The seal of box-office approval has given movies about female friends permission to opt out of being polite.Saul Austerlitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.