Latent Images
‘Bad Moms’ and Nagging Wives: The Reclamation of Maternal Messiness
by Karenna Umscheid

Katherine Heigl speaks with disdain about her role in the 2007 Judd Apatow film Knocked Up. In that film, Heigl and her co-star, Leslie Mann, play women who Heigl has claimed are “humorless and uptight,” while the male characters get to be “loveable, goofy, fun-loving guys.” The words sparked a storm of backlash for Heigl, who was described as ungrateful, a traitor, assertive, and impatient, as women with sharp opinions in the entertainment industry often are. But what was missed in the media storm is the legitimacy of Heigl’s claim, that many mainstream comedy films are sexist in their depictions of women, not just in Knocked Up, but in many other mainstream comedy films as well. However, funny women do eventually get their chance to shine, big-budget studio style, in the 2016 comedy Bad Moms. And though it has taken far too long for Hollywood to support women absolutely letting loose and plunging fully into the messes they can be, the female-led comedies we get now are fresh, outrageous, and fun, a light at the end of the never-ending misogynistic tunnel. 

The root of the comedic confinement for female characters in film is that they often serve to uplift men, and never to improve themselves. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is an iteration of this issue, in which a whimsical woman (often with dyed hair and a unique taste in music), helps the directionless boy find some sort of joy or solace in life, as demonstrated by films like Elizabethtown (2005) and Garden State (2004). In another vein, the femme fatale is adored by some women for her viciousness, but still caters to the male gaze in her trademark sex appeal. The bimbo, the bombshell, the girl next door—all are tropes assigned to female characters meant to be enjoyed by men. Amy Dunne’s “Cool Girl Monologue” in Gone Girl is a direct response to the sick contortion of personhood women exhibit just to be liked. Amy explains that men think of their ideal woman as a “Cool Girl” who is flawless and exhibits all the traits they like, all the while failing to recognize that these women are not real. She explains that cool girls are “not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be.” They play their parts to perfection, calculating every outfit, every look, every word. These women are frequently depicted as Eurocentrically pretty, and made just to be enjoyed by the male gaze. It’s as though only the most attractive pieces of personality are cut up and served in female characters, who are meant to be consumed by male characters and male audiences. 

In modern comedy films, middle-aged women are never allowed to be messy themselves. At most, they deal with a singular dilemma, which is often their attraction to or romantic entanglement with a similarly messy, slovenly man (a lá Adam Sandler comedies). And when women are messy in film or television, it’s because they are in their twenties, the only time when women are allowed to be imperfect. Often, these women’s storylines revolve around, and end with, a sense of stability in life, specifically in a committed relationship with a man, finally ending their streak of being a romantic, single mess. Even general sitcoms ensure that the female characters always end up in a domestic situation, whether it makes sense for their character or not. Character traits are often abandoned in favor of a clean, picture-perfect, all-American ending. 

The messiness men get to exhibit in irreverent, outrageous comedies is thoroughly praised, but women are rarely given the opportunity to act the same. Women were entirely confined to being the punchline and never the comedian in the Judd Apatow-produced (and most other mainstream romantic comedies of the 2000’s). They depict women and men as polar opposites, where the men are outrageously messy, the women being uptight and put-together, meaning men got to be the only humorous ones in the film. The men are also made to be far more likable (“the fun-loving guys,” as Heigl said), while the women are generally meant to be disliked, as they only nag and ruin the fun. But in the 2011 film Bridesmaids, something finally changed: women were finally at the forefront of an Apatow-produced studio comedy. Both young and middle-aged women embrace their messiness, and though the desire for romantic domesticity is still heavily present, the mess is pure and the comedy is outrageous. Heterosexual romantic storylines still persist here, but the truest love story in the film is between Annie (Kristen Wiig) and Lillian (Maya Rudolph), our two leading ladies. The characters, ranging from newlyweds to mothers, all indulge in their impulses, desires, and insanity; their womanhood or motherhood does not oblige them to responsibility and rigidity, allowing the actresses to be fully unrestrained in their comedic roles. Gender roles are seeped into art and film in general, which renders very harmfully in mainstream studio comedies: it reinforces the expectation of perfection required by women and mothers, who must have their lives clean and put together. These characters, and these women, keep their silly husbands grounded, leaving all the comedy, and all the fun, up to them. 

Bad Moms, in continuing the trend of these female-led romantic comedies, tells the story of three middle-aged moms who are all highly stressed, overworked, and burnt-out. Their lives are in complete shambles, yet they must pretend that they are managing it all perfectly, as women, especially mothers, feel pressured to do. That is until, one day, they decide they’ve had enough: they need to step back and let loose a little. Amy Mitchell (Mila Kunis) and Kiki (Kristen Bell) are the main characters in Bad Moms (and the lovely sequel A Bad Moms Christmas), not only in how the film’s plot centers around them, but in how they joke off of each other, with the spirit of female collaboration, instead of misogyny, in the background. Accompanied by the perennially hilarious Kathryn Hahn, playing Carla, the women of the Bad Moms films (yes, they are films) don’t require misogynist tropes or a primary male presence in order to be funny. 

Bad Moms rejects the pristine expectations set for mothers and middle-age women. The three main characters decide to push against the norms of a patriarchal society that require them to do it all — make money for their family, provide sex and love to their husbands, and take care of any and all of their children’s needs — to an impossible standard. Finally aware of the full impossibility of juggling all these prospects, the women decide to demand fairer expectations from those who require their emotional and physical labor, all while letting loose. They throw wild parties, get high off of aerosol whipped cream cans, and attract hostility from the uptight members of the PTA. 

The most comedic conflict of the film is between the titular bad moms and the societally-deemed “good moms,” who run the parent-teacher association and spread gossip throughout the parents of the school. Christina Applegate’s Gwendolyn James is the main antagonist, a perfect manifestation of everything a mother is expected to be. She’s clean, organized, and constantly involved in the lives of her children. Like a high school drama, she’s the queen bee with her two loyal supporters. And when Amy decides to run against her for PTA President, a line is drawn between the mothers who pretend to be perfect, and the ones who refuse to conform to their expectations. 

In the end, Amy wins the PTA election after plenty of rambunctious mom parties and shenanigans with Carla and Kiki. Gwendolyn reveals that her authoritarian nature is due to the stress of her divorce, having used the PTA as her emotional outlet. Each mother’s behavior is a product of the harmful society they live in, where women are expected to bear all the stress of their families on their shoulders, and not express any negative emotion about it. With her new position as PTA President, the lives of each mother are improved, with the pressure eased. The newfound friendship between the mothers combats the cattiness female characters are often given in their narratives, and prevents the characters from being isolated, or sidelined as wives and girlfriends. 

With the Bad Moms franchise, women have been allowed to be funny without the male, heteronormative restrictions forced upon them for decades of studio comedies. And in the future, the misogyny in the studio comedies will age more and more poorly. Before Bad Moms and movies similar get dismissed as trashy and overly-raunchy, it’s important to acknowledge the ways that trashy, overly-raunchy women have rarely been allowed to exist in mainstream films. Although we have films like Bad Moms and Bridesmaids, they don’t always succeed in the box office, and are often dismissed by mainstream audiences as a ploy for “wokeness.” But the sheer amount of misogynistic comedies of today and of the 2000s require well-crafted and hilarious female-led comedies as a counter. The work to undo or at least counter the negative impact the sexist studio comedies have had on the portrayal of women in cinema is difficult and lengthy, but it’s absolutely necessary. And the freedom that these middle-aged female characters exhibit is absolutely worth celebrating, and savoring. Bad Moms is just the beginning.