It is not everyone who watches, in the short span of a weekend, two films that are about groups of women and their roles in society; women whose ultimate goal is love or, at the very least, marriage; sets of female characters who are separated by almost precisely two hundred years and their respective referenced films separated by fifteen. I lay before you statistics that reveal that, oddly, not much has changed in the space of time.
The first is Bridesmaids, a humorous (knowing that humor often derives from pain) look at women in the 21st century: independent, contemporary females who apparently have way more on the ball than the males they are surrounded by – but do want to be surrounded by – and still dress for the ball, at every turn, whether midnight approaches or not – always keeping their eyes on the balls, in every respect. Yes, I laughed my ass off when they behaved in ways that are so counter to acceptable “feminine behavior”; and yet, there they all were still wanting to be feminine – whatever that means. The goals have not changed; perhaps the means have. It is the same fairy-tale dream of crinoline and taffeta and the magic of happily-ever-after-ness. These film characters constitute a group of sisters of one sort: sister-survivors of a still male-dominated world.
The second film, but chronologically first (and you might feel a whiplash effect here), is Pride & Prejudice, the 1995 BBC version. Some of you may know that its five-hours’ viewing is an annual event in these parts by way of honoring a deceased mother, and the obligation is not a hardship or an unpleasant experience. But having just seen Bridesmaids, this time P&P was viewed in a different light. Or is it different? Okay, so in P&P there is a group of Regency Period women – blood sisters in various combinations – who are unable to earn or even inherit money or property given the unjust laws. Their goals are clear: obtain comfort, have status, protect the future of their families – and some want love, as well. And, yes, in this, too, there are plenty of balls, but they are the type with music and dancing. Plus, in P&P, although women are disadvantaged in their status, they are often (not always) more decisive about what they want or don’t want, and are pretty good at getting it. Lizzie can best any man she encounters and does so, despite her fate of being forced into a life of dependence; she is smart, accomplished, has wisdom that exceeds her years and is not always the best judge of character but, nevertheless, doesn’t allow herself to be used by men.
In Bridesmaids, Annie does let herself be used and seems to suffer from low self-esteem. Others in her group (and let’s mention here that this is an older crowd than the P&P group) are in various relationships, mostly unsatisfying. The most “out there” and fearless character is Megan – and, interestingly, she is the least feminine. Besides being hilarious, she is the one who comments most on female stereotypes – in a kind of butch way. In P&P, it is the sister Mary who steps out of the box in a similar fashion (similar within the context of the times). She is not depicted as being heroic; she is bookish, self-contained, pious and extremist – ridiculously so, even in that era. But she is the most nontraditional female. Her only interest in the opposite sex is a bit of infatuation with the irritably pious Mr. Collins but, of course, the feelings are not mutual. However, Mary does not exhibit signs of low self-esteem. Frustration with her sisters, yes, and society at large, but not with herself.
Et tu, Megan. In the modern age, Megan gets to act-out what Mary must suppress, so maybe therein lies the difference. However, both characters are depicted as outsiders within the accepted norms. And we get an explanation in Bridesmaids, when Megan gets her moment of truth-telling in revealing her reasons for her tough demeanor, a caring attempt to shake Annie to her senses. Whether it is 2011 or 1813, it still seems to be about women’s idea of self, based on societal expectations. There is a search for Prince Charming in both stories and, yet, in both, the women are the ultimate deciders. It is their choice, their place to determine whether to like themselves, when to make a move, how to present themselves to the world – or, still like little girls, play dress-up – and find ways to catch the man of their dreams or their dreams of a man. The hope is that they catch themselves first.