The Past, Present, And Future Of Raunchy Female Comedies

A dead stripper, a couple of swingers, and a Human Centipede joke. Sounds like the ingredients for a new Hangover movie, right? But it's actually the plot of Rough Night, the new bachelorette party gone bad comedy opening this weekend.

A female-fronted film with raunch and revelry shouldn't feel like an anomaly in 2017, yet somehow, it still does. Despite the box office success of Bad Moms, Trainwreck, and almost every comedy Melissa McCarthy has made, each movie of this kind tends to arrive with an odd sense of novelty. Or, at the very least, skepticism.

So why is it that movies like Rough Night – and Girls Trip, which opens just a month later – are still met with curiosity? The reaction is rooted in history.

Raunch (for Women) Has Always Been Rare

Rought Night and its peers stick out because these movies aren't exactly common, and they never have been. On a micro level, films explicitly about bachelorette parties are almost nonexistent. Leslye Headland's 2012 indie Bachelorette is one of the only recognizable examples, and the widest release it received was 60 theaters. This actually makes some sense. Bachelorette parties are a modern invention that didn't exist until about the 1980s, when the New York Times started using the term in society pages. As these parties slowly started appearing on film, they were usually confined to a mere scene in movies about weddings. Now, people want to see what they can do as an entire story device.

But on a macro level, bawdy comedies of any kind starring women are limited. The top 25 highest-grossing comedies of all time with an R rating includes plenty of male-fronted raunchfests: Deadpool, The Hangover, The Hangover Part II, Ted, Wedding Crashers, 22 Jump Street, and There's Something About Mary. (Beverly Hills Cop, though not exactly a "raunchfest," also makes the list.) But Bridesmaids is the lone female-driven entry. Does that indicate audiences only want to see dudes guzzle tequila and steal Mike Tyson's tiger? Not at all. The box office has proven there's an appetite for funny women behaving badly. They just don't make it onto the screen as frequently.

Both women and men were allowed to be lewd in the pre-code films of the 1920s and 1930s, when Hollywood was not yet censoring itself. But then salacious characters had to hide for a while. Things started to change in 1968, once the Hays Code censorship collapsed and the MPAA established a ratings system. The 1970s immediately saw an influx of racier comedies. Mel Brooks blazed through a run of giddily crude farces. Animal House provided a blueprint for all future frathouse films with its wild toga parties and gross-out gags. Women were mostly, at this point, sidekicks to the boys' rowdy good times, and this certainly continued into the 1980s when sex comedies like Porky's reached their peak. But there were obviously subversions and exceptions. Although Fast Times at Ridgemont High is mainly remembered for Phoebe Cates's bikini, the movie includes fleshed-out female characters who were hardly prudes. And long before Horrible Bosses became a cocaine-fueled smash, the women of 9 to 5 were plotting their (admittedly tamer) workplace revenge.

Women also tried their hand at profanity on the fringes – think John Waters's famously depraved films, or the one-liners in cult comedies like Heathers. As the decades marched on, they continued being sidekicks to wild and crazy dudes like Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler, or whoever Judd Apatow picked to star in his early run of movies. But when people discuss raucous female comedies today, their history tends to begin with Bridesmaids.

The Bridesmaids Effect

Some critics think this genre (if you can call it that) of movies has suffered from the so-called "Bridesmaids effect." After the 2011 comedy's phenomenal success, the idea circulated that this movie was going to change everything. If Bridesmaids was a hit, surely a tidal wave of ribald female comedies was fast approaching. But that wasn't exactly what happened. Instead, the future of women in comedy was relitigated each time a "new Bridesmaids" was released.

"Women can do rated-R comedy or the harder-edge comedies instead of just being a cute, stumbling little girl," Sandra Bullock insisted while promoting The Heat in 2013. Tina Fey hyped her hard-partying "woman-child" character in Sisters two years later, just a few months after Amy Schumer spent all summer wondering why Trainwreck's sexually explicit content was such a big deal. A fed-up Kristen Wiig finally asked during the Ghostbusters press tour in 2016, "How many litmus tests do we need? I've been hearing this for five years. Sorry, I'm finished."

But if the tests were to end, if studios finally invested in female-focused raunch in a major and consistent way, who would star in those movies? There are certainly names that come to mind, but the list is far shorter than the one of actors who play man-children, playboys, and wiseasses for laughs.

The Stars Aren’t There

This lack isn't organic; it was man-made. Actresses, comedic or otherwise, still face absurd expectations in terms of beauty. It's why models like Kate Upton can be slotted into movie comedies over seasoned comics. But having a flat stomach and amazing hair isn't enough. There's also a certain expectation of grace, and belching or telling dirty jokes is decidedly not graceful or cute. That's why you rarely hear about female legends of physical comedy, outside of Lucille Ball.

Only a few women have been allowed to give truly indelicate comedic performances. One of them is Melissa McCarthy. Ever since she arrived as a full-fledged star in 2011, she's put in consistent work as a funny, fearless performer whose box office proves she's a sound investment. But rather than being lauded for her talent and strong openings, she's almost punished for it. Vulture has laid out the ways the media has painted McCarthy's success as an illusion, one she shouldn't expect to continue. She's repeatedly been accused of playing the same character, having box office "wobbliness," and, most quizzically, needing a new agent. Those nonsensical critiques are the nice ones, too. You need only to invoke the name "Rex Reed" to remember the cruel indignities McCarthy has suffered just for daring to appear onscreen.

If the opportunities are limited for white women like McCarthy, they're far worse for women of color. The buzziest female ensembles of the past couple years have tended to feature just one non-white woman, if that. Bridesmaids had Maya Rudolph, Ghostbusters had Leslie Jones, Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising had Kiersey Clemons, and now Rough Night has Zoë Kravitz. But then there's the forthcoming Girls Trip, which features four black women as the leads. When Girls Night opens in July, it could be taken as another "litmus test." Projections at this point are somewhat limited. There's speculation that Girls Trip could provide excellent counterprogramming to Dunkirk, which also opens on July 21st, but with the marketing machine just starting up in earnest, it's hard to gauge. Still, with names like Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, Regina Hall, and black-ish creator Kenya Barris attached, it's got enormous potential.

It's not just who's in front of the camera that's significant here. The future of these comedies will also hinge on the talent behind the camera, where there's much more work to be done.

Neither Are the Directors

Vanity Fair ran a feature on Rough Night with the jarring headline: "The Audacity of Rough Night, the First R-rated Studio Comedy Directed by a Woman in Nearly 20 Years." The article noted a technicality in Nancy Meyers' It's Complicated, which earned an R rating for a brief scene depicting marijuana use, but the last truly "R-rated comedy" directed by a woman was Tamra Davis's Half Baked, which debuted in 1998. That seems insane, until you read the depressing statistics on female directors across all genres. Women still comprise less than 10% of the directors on the top 250 movies in a given year.

In fact, if you look at the credits on the 15 highest-grossing female-driven comedies, you'll find exactly one lady in the directors' chair: Elizabeth Banks for Pitch Perfect 2. The rest are all men with varying degrees of fame. Some, like Charles Herman-Wurmfeld, have already been lost to history.

All this is to say that women, even the well-established ones, are rarely allowed to direct comedies about women. And that's a big problem when you consider films like Bad Moms.

Bad Moms was an enormous financial success, so much so that it easily earned a sequel. (A Bad Mom's Christmas hits theaters this November.) But several female critics took issue with the movie, specifically for its characterization of the titular moms. This critique is hard to ignore when you consider who wrote and directed the movie: two dudes. Specifically, Scott Moore and Jon Lucas of Hangover fame.

Here's how Moore described the movie's genesis in an interview: "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."

Nowhere does Moore suggest he and Lucas actually asked their wives about "the idea of being the perfect mom" or "how intense that is." They seemingly just observed and placed their own expectations on these (not really) bad moms. That's not only lazy, but a bad long-term business strategy. For raunchy female comedies to truly grow, there needs to be a greater effort to connect with their intended audience. Handing the reins over to creatives who are part of that very audience is a crucial step in the right direction.

Where Is This All Going?

Rough Night probably won't do much to shake up the scene. Box office could change that theory completely, but on its own, the movie isn't all that groundbreaking. Some of the humor does feel different, most likely the result of the "woke" millennial perspective director and co-writer Lucia Aniello ported over from Broad City (where she, Ilana Glazer, and co-writer/star Paul W. Downs all work). That's something worth exploring, especially since it's distinct from Neighbors 2, which was highlighted for similarly progressive themes. But Neighbors 2 had to essentially pitch feminism to frat brothers. Rough Night never has that burden.

The casting of Scarlett Johansson, who is a perfectly adequate straight woman but decidedly not a comedian, does signal a potentially worrisome strategy. Are studios, in a moment of bizarre backsliding, now deciding that female ensemble comedies don't "work" unless there's an established name attached? This is demonstrably false (see, for the millionth time, Bridesmaids) but it does seem like the exact kind of miscalculation a studio like Sony would make. Remember: they're also the ones who did Ghostbusters, which was deemed a disappointment. The executives must be looking for an answer right now, and although "more celebrities!" isn't the correct one, it might be the one they chose.

Regardless of how Rough Night is received, however, it's certainly encouraging that women seem to be writing these bawdy comedies. Aniello shares screenwriting credit with her partner Downs here, but women have claimed sole screenplay credit for Bridesmaids, The Heat, Trainwreck, Sisters, Snatched, and several recent movies. Tracy Oliver, Karen McCullah, and Erica Rivinoja will share credit with Kenya Barris on Girls Trip.

A big thing to keep an eye on moving forward is the producer credits. Elizabeth Banks was a producer on the original Pitch Perfect, went on to direct the sequel, and has since passed the baton onto another woman director. Reese Witherspoon has also been candid about seeking out women for her productions – her buddy movie with Sofia Vergara, Hot Pursuit, was directed by a woman and so is her upcoming rom-com Home Again. If women like McCarthy, who has produced a few of her films, start taking a more active hand in these raunchy female comedies, that could result in more women directors. It could also just result in better characters – gross, messy, ridiculous ones who resemble the gross, messy, ridiculous women of reality.