I thought about delaying this post until the end of these discussion, because it’s a tricky subject to broach, but there’s no way to get around it: we have to talk about the underlying sexism of this category’s most applauded nomination.
The five nominations in this field are Janet McTeer for Albert Nobbs (a classic “woman playing a man” nomination, the Academy loves ‘em), Bérénice Bejo for The Artist (if The Artist makes as strong a push as I expect it to leading up to the Academy Awards, she'll end up with the victory here by default), Jessica Chastain and likely winner Octavia Spencer for The Help (both performances are a nice balance of comedy and melancholy, which always plays well in the Academy – not to mention The Help’s box office success and mild cultural importance, which’ll certainly sway voters), and Melissa McCarthy for Bridesmaids. And it’s McCarthy I want to talk about.
First off, I love Bridesmaids, and I loved McCarthy in it. And I’m not going to argue that her nomination is undeserved; good comedy is always woefully underrepresented at the Oscars. I’m just going to point out that a male comedian who had broken out in a bawdy comedy with physical humor, farting, sink-pooping, and overly aggressive sexual behavior would be a good deal more reviled by critics and would stand no chance of being awarded anything, least of all an Oscar. No one would deny this. So why is McCarthy nominated?
Let’s start with Bridesmaids’ box office success. The overarching media storyline in the following weeks of its big open was “See? Women can be funny and bawdy too!” That was immediately followed by a backlash storyline of “whoever said that they couldn’t?” Now, every actress in a comedy movie has to answer questions about Bridesmaids and the comedic differences between men and women. Every woman-centric comedy that’s followed has been compared to Bridesmaids, as if there had never been women comedians before this summer.
I grew bored with both storylines pretty quickly, frankly, and I’d like to move on from them. What I want to talk about is that both storylines agree that Bridesmaids’ was a very good movie, and pretty much everyone agrees that women comedians don’t get a lot of credit, and all of those people assume that no one else had noticed until now. It’s the same cultural momentum that gets people like Sandra Bullock and Reese Witherspoon Oscars - they rode a crest of likability and general approval and “this is her time!” to an award that seemed somewhat undeserved just a few months later. Welcome to the Bridesmaids’ Oscar campaign.
Melissa McCarthy is at the forefront of this movement, because she’s so good in the movie, a scene-stealing comedy force. And it really is more daring (I try to avoid using the word “brave” at all costs when talking about acting, because it's a ridiculous word to use. I also managed to avoid using tour de force in this paragraph's first sentence, a show of restraint I feel I should be commended for) to be a vulgar physical comedian as an actress than as an actor. It’s not socially acceptable, for whatever reason, and there’s no point in pretending it is.
So her performance of puppy-stealing and public defecation is viewed as a form of social progress, which is why award shows are desperate to honor her. McCarthy won the Emmy award for Outstanding Lead Actress this year, ostensibly for “Mike and Molly”, but actually for Bridesmaids.
But that doesn’t change the fact that honoring McCarthy for her broad comedy just widens the gap between male and female comedians. If McCarthy is awarded trophies for having the audacity to do “male” comedy, it just pronounces that such behavior is unexpected and extraordinary. A bad assertion to make, I think.
If people really wanted to make a statement, they wouldn’t honor her at all. The awards would go to actresses playing cross-dressers or suicidal parents or whale riders or whatever, and McCarthy would be watching the awards from home. Nothing to see here, folks. Just another woman, doing whatever she can to make us laugh. Nothing out of the ordinary.