BOTCHED BODIES

Trigger Warnings: Eating disorders, self-harm

by Sunetra Senior

The main appeal of Leslye Headland’s underrated 2012 film ‘Bachelorette’ was how it treated commonly stigmatised women’s disorders such as bulimia, self-harm and nymphomania. Rather than treading delicately, the comedy-drama shows the three main characters, close friends Regan, Katie and Gena (Kirsten Dunst, Isla Fischer and Lizzy Caplan) – each with their respective ailment- in an unapologetic, borderline celebratory way.

To me, this was a tribute to the new, liberating trend in feminism whereby female narratives are not only shown in an equally lively and entertaining way – for instance ‘Broad City’ and ‘Bridesmaids’ – but in their whole complex continuum, including the more difficult realities. Poking fun at the trappings of mainstream sexism, comedian Amy Schumer joins Headland’s commentary here. But what ‘Bacherlorette’s’ merry gang of messed up madams more specifically, and controversially, does is not so much highlight the darker truth as actually advocate it, and here emerges its special genius.

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Revelling in a consummate whirlwind of coke-taking, blow jobs and wickedly witty exchanges, the female characters are ultimately shown flaunting their psychological flaws; they take pride in the fact they are damaged. Because of course many women do not experience the likes of eating disorders, cutting and obsessive sexual compulsion as some lowly, encumbering phenomenon; far from it. For them it is a necessary routine not only to get through the day but to actively thrive at it. “I was stressed out, and I just needed something for myself” Dunst’s character retorts when she is caught trying to throw up. This, to her, is a coping mechanism, as fulfilling as having dessert or enjoying a quick massage. Indeed Dodal Stewart of indie women’s magazine Jezebel has written of the film’s taboo honesty ‘there’s a beauty in a grittier type of tale’.

Women are given a lot to answer to so is it any wonder that just eating more healthily or taking deep breaths does not feel like enough?

Of course this is still problematic, but that is the point. Part of the narrative’s ‘beauty’ is the double-take discomfort it evokes from a tittering audience. It is impossible not to feel complicit as you laugh along at the women’s drama. That we are seeing body dysmorphia and manipulation  as such accepted and blasé practice – Fischer’s character, who is susceptible to self-harm, ODs “every weekend” – not only asks the question why, but makes us assiduously confront the answer. It is no coincidence that main focus Reagan (Dunst) is a high-achieving career woman who also compulsively suffers her cell-phone – she is practically glued to the device though it is the source of endless exasperation. We can see the particular pressures acting on women, on top of a typically high-octane modern day: the stress to look immaculate, to always be responsible, to look out for your friends and be caring, all the while remaining aloof and mysterious to keep the attentions of men. Women are given a lot to answer to so is it any wonder that just eating more healthily or taking deep breaths does not feel like enough? Such an intense emotional squeeze requires release of equal measure so putting the onus on individual women to ‘toughen up and deal’ is just a little bit dismissive: especially when we consider the whole patriarchal picture.

A significant chunk of ‘Bachelorette’ does take place in a strip club. Jezebel’s Stewart has also stated: ‘People might get tricked by the trailer (Bachelorette), which paints the film as a silly, Hollywood-style light-hearted romp. But it’s not. It’s something better: The characters, haunted by past, present and future ghosts, unflinchingly experience real, raw emotions’. The film is as much a critique as it is a comedy, and it is with the build up to an overtly gendered setting, that the ongoing social law that continues to serve men at the expense of women’s self-esteem becomes clear: “that was good” says Trevor, an insufferable bachelor in the film, to a stripper, “but you’re beginning to bore me now”. Later, in the same club, Dunst says to him “twelve is when it happens”; when a girl growing up begins to feel the gaze of the adult public, and “that’s when you start to feel bad about yourself”. The sexualised space in the film then punctuates the existence of an unofficial, but no less definite, male-orientated dynamic that thinks it’s ok to treat women subserviently. The qualities demanded of women in the age-old Madonna/whore dyad are still, in essence, being preserved: a) she must prove herself personally and physically worthy b) this involves making sure she is always approachable/unintimidating and looks sexy without overdoing it (because then anyone can get her and where’s the victory/pride in that?).

This is what manifests itself in the distinctly self-destructive nature of female disorders. Feeling obliged to manoeuvre your identity around what the other half of the population wants, and constantly having to check yourself, has a subconsciously erosive  effect – ‘I ate way too much today, I should have called him/her back, why isn’t she texting back, did I offend her? Was I flirting too much?’ Though seemingly harmless in isolation, these thoughts form the basis for a default state of self-doubt and self-effacement. In short, being treated like a second-class citizen makes you *surprise, surprise* feel like a second-class citizen. Statistics show that women are 4 times more likely to cut themselves in prison where men are more likely to get into fights. This self-punishing method of processing emotions is an internalisation of the punitive treatment by society. Though physical violence towards another is not exactly the ideal, at least the male reaction exhibits a basic sense of entitlement and self-worth.

As a corollary to this, it is interesting that male suicide rates are higher. Though there are many factors, this could also be because women are more used to compromise and concession-making on a daily basis, whereby men are more humiliated by the sudden situations of powerlessness life can sometimes throw at you. In ‘Bachelorette’ Caplan’s character has a conversation with a stripper in the changing rooms where the latter tells her “men lose power and they gotta come here and get it back immediately, it’s not the same for women, they just cry in bathrooms or take it out on their friends”. The statement rings all the more true as it is being confided in private, in the safe zone between two women. And it does make you think: why don’t more women go to strip clubs? How many straight male strip clubs are even out there? It is sure as hell not because we don’t have the sex drive, as Caplan’s character consistently demonstrates; again the answer is because we are made to feel embarrassed about our libidos, because we are used to playing down anything that honours our ego; anything that asks on behalf of us.

There is emerging a sort of fed-up, fuck you feminism, in which women are using the media to not just ask for, but begin the process of claiming complete autonomy

And here we return full-circle to Headland’s rebellion, and as a greenlit film which has received a lot of positive reception, what it represents about wider consciousness. There is emerging a sort of fed-up, fuck you feminism, in which women are using the media to not just ask for, but begin the process of claiming complete autonomy – i.e. levelling the psychological field – by broadcasting previously hidden female stories and details, including unfiltered accounts of the oppression itself. One Amy Schumer skit, for example, shows how difficult it is for women to report rape through a bizarre, glitching video game. And the light-hearted, pro-active approach is important. It breaks through that dead-end of a pitiable victim stereotype, which conveniently distracts from the real and more attentive responsibilities of ideology, the men who do exploit it, and the women who are readily taking it.

No other movie and/or example speaks this as loudly as Bachelorette and its dark debauchery (spoiler alert): part of the climax is when Dunst’s character saves Fischer’s character by sticking her fingers down her throat and reviving her through induced vomiting. ‘Yeah, we have bulimia’ reads the feminist subtext, ‘but only because we are surviving’. Reversing the idea of seeing such disorders as flaws in women then inverts the self-hatred and channels the blame outwards so it goes to the right place: “Fuck everybody” Dunst and the bride-to-be recite as a mantra at the end. Women are doing all they can, and it’s society that needs to adjust.

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