“Humor is a way to make trouble…” —Gina Barreca
In the movie Bridesmaids, written by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, we get an engagement, a wedding, a budding romance, a story about friendship, and a feel-good lesson about reclaiming one’s dream.
We also get shit. A lot of it. It runs, dribbles, and explodes—in toilets, in sinks, on the street, and into expensive, unpaid-for French couture dresses.
Filth is the province of men, the late Christopher Hitchens tells us, as is humor. As is a keen understanding and acceptance of life’s absurd nature, its messiness. Women are too invested in wanting life to be fair, orderly, and sweet to be able to laugh at the ways it isn’t, he says. Men like Hitchens don’t want their women to be funny; they want to make them laugh in the same way I imagine they want to fuck them; they’d prefer them reluctant at first, then unable to resist, offering up “the sweet surrender of female laughter.” It wouldn’t be half as good if women were easy, or if they themselves initiated the laughter instead of being the uptight virginal receivers of a joke so funny they laugh against their will.
This female politesse is the focus of Bridesmaids, and we get to nod and giggle at the ways women try hold everything in, their tight-lipped smiles masquerading anger, jealousy, shame. Yet the real pleasure happens in the breakdown, when the thin veil of civility cannot hold the real in, and it quite literally erupts.
Kristin Wiig’s rubber-faced genius captures the broad range of unsavory human emotions and the trouble they cause when stuffed into a mask that can’t contain them. Upon hearing news of her best friend Lillian’s (Maya Rudolph) engagement, Wiig’s character, Annie, responds with surprise, “What? What?!” she cries and hugs her best friend.
Then she gets hot. Real hot. We see a flash of panic in her eyes. She continues to hold onto her smile for dear life as her laughter gets a little higher, a little more panicked, and she gently eeks out, “Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh…I just got hot, my pits are sweating, my stomach hurts. I don’t know, hot. Oh my God.” She’s smiling still, her confusion trying to mask itself as congratulations—“What is happening?”—as she continues on with the obligatory performance of strained happiness. The Pandora’s box of her emotions— jealousy, fear of being left alone—culminates in her laughing by herself on the couch as if laughing with Lillian, who is on the phone with her fiancé in the hallway. Annie’s laughter becomes a hysterical display of what is about to break, but which she cannot afford to recognize.
Annie’s face is the star of the movie, and we watch it take in and try to process a continual assault of foul and ugly truths, like when Rita (Wendi McLendon-Covey) describes what it’s like to have three boys: “They’re sticky, they smell, there’s semen all over the place. I broke a blanket in half. Do you know where I'm going with that?”
Or when Annie’s mom (Jill Clayburgh) describes Annie’s dad’s favorite sexual act, “It’s called a chicken coop,” she says, despite Annie’s quiet statement that she doesn’t want to know. “You start at the back and you peck your way to the front like you have a beak,” she pecks at the air to demonstrate. “Then you end up with two eggs in your mouth.” We watch Annie try to fashion her face into a manageable expression. Then gently, politely, she tells her mother, “It’s…it’s gross.” But she listens anyway, fields the assault, and struggles to maintain grace, civility, and the illusion of ease.
There are no beautiful surfaces without a terrible depth, Nietzsche tells us.
Likewise, excess would be nothing without its opposite, restraint; the crass would be powerless without someone to offend.
Bridesmaids is full of moments in which terrible depths burst through beautiful surfaces. We laugh at the strain, as the unsavory threatens to break through, coming to an explosive climax in the dress-fitting scene.
In reading reviews of Bridesmaids, I was struck by how often the explosive shit scene is invoked. I was also struck by the language used to describe it, or more accurately, how few reviewers went there. The “gross-out scene,” as it is so often called, is clearly a memorable moment, a nagging visual pea under the imagination mattress of its viewers. And yet, no one really wants to go there. The scene gets one or two sentences at most. It’s uncouth to talk about shit. And let’s not forget, unfeminine.
David Denby describes the shit scene as an “awkwardly unfunny episode that should have been dropped,” “in which the women, while trying on fancy dresses at a bridal salon, undergo digestive inconveniences.” He then asks in parentheses, “(Is there really that big an audience for vomit?)” It’s as if he’s cleaning the shit up with gloved hands even as he writes about it, tidying it up in language to avoid embarrassing linguistic inconveniences. (And yes, by the way, there is a big audience for vomit.)
To talk about shit is to acknowledge the ways in which our bodies betray us all the time.
In “A Load of Shit,” John Berger deals, literally, with the year’s shit. He digs a hole the size of a shallow grave, then transfers shit via a shovel from the outhouse into the hole. Facing the weight and stench of his own and his loved ones’ shit, is, for Berger, a moment of reckoning. Shit has that power of making us deal. He tells us, “the foul, sweet stench goads, nags teleologically…”
For Berger, shit conjures notions of decay, putrefaction, corruption, mortality—there is death in shit, he tells us. All that is difficult for us to look at and accept manifests as literally repulsive in shit’s foul, sweet smell.
But what isn’t in shit, Berger insists, is what we try to attach to it: shame, sin, evil. Shit is no more evil than anything in nature; it no more cares about our sense of morality than death. What is evil, he says, or what can become evil, is our inability to call shit what it is, or rather, our capacity for calling things what they’re not.
Our ability to turn away from and rename, to cover over with language, is what allows us to talk ourselves into inhuman acts of cruelty while pretending they are not: like calling war civility, perhaps, or calling sexism humor, or calling the buying and selling of women marriage.
To name things for the shit that they are—war as war, sexism as sexism, shit as shit—is, ontologically speaking, a matter of going there.
It’s about not being afraid of getting your hands dirty, your words dirty. It’s about not being afraid to admit that the filth is your own.
In the beginning of the explosive shit scene, the ladies stand around in their potential bridesmaids dresses, feeling increasingly sick. It starts with a rumble. One by one the ladies get hot and ashen. But they continue with the dress-fitting ritual. “Is anyone else hot?” Megan (Melissa McCarthy) asks, “It’s like an oven in here.” We hear more rumbles, see each woman’s pale, clammy face, except Annie’s nemesis, Helen (Rose Byrne), who didn’t eat the Brazilian food and who begins to suspect something is up.
When Lillian comes out in a one-of-a-kind Fritz Bernaise wedding gown, the women fawn over her, as expected. “Holy shit, you look amazing,” Megan says. Looking visibly uncomfortable, she adds, “That dress is so pretty it makes my stomach hurt.”
Annie joins in the praise, “Lillian, I don’t know what to say, you look…” but she’s interrupted by Megan, who clamps a hand over her own mouth to stifle a burst of vomit. Then Megan farts, and it’s on.
While Annie denies that it could be food poisoning from the restaurant she chose, the ladies take turns clamping their hands over their mouths and farting. Finally, they make a beeline to the bathroom, against the saleswoman’s frantic pleas to go outside. “Not the bathroom!” she cries.
“I think everybody has the flu,” Annie insists, while Helen looks at her admonishingly. Meanwhile, Rita vomits in the toilet while Megan searches desperately for a hole. She lifts her skirt and hoists herself onto the sink.
“No! No, Megan, no!” Rita cries.
“Look away,” Megan shouts. “Look away!”
Sometimes turning away from a thing and calling it something else can help us swallow what might otherwise be difficult to digest. When we name shit as food, for example, we grapple by way of humor with the fucked up way the beautiful, the delightful, and the tasty turn into the foul, the rank, the dying—what we will inevitably become ourselves: ass kabobs, chocolate channel chewie, creamy butt nuggets, hardened fudge, keester cakes, tangy butt nuts, shitsicles, lawn sausage, elk duds, toilet bowl stew. Or we process the “machinery” of our bodies, whose sounds, smells, and secretions might expose us as being utterly human at any moment: booty hole burnout, human espresso machine, screaming mimis, colon cannonballs, booty bombs. Or we personify shit and imagine it as the living embodiment of our animal nature, our monstrosity, our alien selves: the fourth teletubby, ass goblins, frightened turtle, and last but certainly, certainly not least, the corn-eyed butt snake.
I must pause for a minute to confess: I’ve been hit with fits of laughter since I began writing this essay. In fact, my girlfriend keeps looking over at me with concern. She already fears that when she travels, she’ll come home to find that I’ve smeared my own shit on the wall. (Shit can be useful in this way, to mark the line between the sane and the bonkers. A friend and I have a test whenever either one of us teeters on bonkers—“Did you throw your own shit? No? Then you’re fine.”)
To talk about shit is to actively court humiliation, and so it occurs to me that I should feel some embarrassment, not for the list of shit synonyms I’ve perhaps gratuitously included above or the number of times I’ve used the word “shit,” but in the pleasure I’ve so clearly taken in doing so.
Thankfully, there is Wayne Koestenbaum, who nudges me to think about the simultaneous horror and release we feel during moments of humiliation. “Humiliation is bliss,” he writes, “if the experience of largeness or magnitude has become overwhelming or unpleasant and you need relief.” Perhaps there is freedom in humiliation, from having nothing left that can be soiled. The worst has happened, and there you are exposed, and so . . . there you are. Left with the realization that you are shit and witnessed by others as such. We might resist such stripping away at first; we might hang on tight before we let go.
If our own humiliation is too painful or too poignant, we can always delight in watching another’s so that we can feel release by proxy. We can laugh at Lillian shitting in the middle of the street, white couture bridal gown fanned around her like a soiled flower, because she is and is not us; we did not shit ourselves in the street this time, but we could have. Watching her, we feel the pleasure of release, but we can also walk away, leave it behind as somebody else’s.
“It’s happening,” Lillian says, as she darts across the street in the dress. “It’s happening. It’s happening.” Finally, she lowers herself to the ground, “It happened. It happened.” Annie is there to confirm this brutal truth: “Ooh, you’re really doing it, aren’t you. You’re shittin’ in the street.” The scene is a moment of reckoning as the ontological load is dropped and the bride is stripped of her fantasy of transcendence, humbled in the face of the human.
For Eileen Myles, the body’s release echoes her own mourning the day she takes a girlfriend to the airport and becomes so upset that she shits and pukes at the same time. “I felt like a worm,” she writes in “Everyday Barf.” “Like there was no difference between me—and anything. It was just this force flowing through me. Loss.”
In the moment of release, boundaries loosen and disappear—of self, of gender. And yet, when we hold women’s bodies up to impossible standards, we deny women the potential liberation that comes from being stripped of everything we know, everything others attach to us.
Judd Apatow, producer of Bridesmaids, says that the explosive shit scene was almost cut from the movie. “We all debated if it was too far,” he says. Too far. When do women’s bodies not go too far? Part of Wiig’s brilliance is that she embodies the loose cannon of flesh always slightly out of our control, legs windshield-wiping like a rag doll’s as she gets ploughed by Ted (John Hamm). When she leaves him in the morning, at his douchey urging, she can’t open the gate, so she hoists her body over it and gets stuck as it begins to open on its own. We laugh as Annie rides the gate, head held high, the troubling female body that doesn’t know its place in full view of the driver who opened the gate.
Steve-O, in Jackass 3D, can strap himself into a Porta Potty filled with dog shit, bungee jump the whole shebang into the air, and maintain a kind of putrid sex appeal, inviting awe, admiration, and cheers from theater-goers. But a woman smeared with shit invites pity, disgust. We judge her and want to save her at the same time. If we’re going to call shit chocolate, we might as well call breasts melons, the vagina a honey pot. Let’s tame the monstrous with the implication of a good meal.
We want our women to be sleek and round, neatly tucked in but with the suggestion of abundance, cups that runneth over but which are also always contained. We like our women dirty but chaste, bold but quietly so, aroused but only for us. We want them still and pretty like a snap shot, but there they go, spilling all over the place, the harmless clown threatening to become the slut, the dyke, the feminist, the cheat.
I take a break from writing this essay to walk my dogs and, I kid you not, one of them steps in shit. Someone left that shit behind thinking it would go away. I spend twenty minutes cleaning it up from his paws, my hands, my arms, the rug, the floor. I’m sure I can smell it now as I write this. Shit gets in your nose like that.
This same handsome dog eats his own shit sometimes. He looks up, taunting me, making eye contact as he lowers his mouth slowly, like he’s very deliberately giving the unopposable finger to our human attempts at cleanliness, purity, moral sanctity. Everything you do is shit, I imagine him saying, sometimes in a French accent, as he savors the shit just out of my reach. C’mon, have a bite. There’s protein and rubber toys in here. It’s a good time once you admit to yourself that this is all we are anyway. Ooh-la la! His is a dual affront—eating what is meant to be discarded and devouring his own in cannibalistic disregard.
I marvel at his capacity for acceptance.
Oh shit, that great equalizer. The aggressive reminder, the stinking refusal, the heavy load we all bear. The domain of children, the elderly, dogs, and men. What should never be discussed in public, or by women. What should not be thrown or eaten, or photographed for Instagram. The ultimate secret, yet the one we all share.
We all walk around full of shit. But it’s what we do with it that defines us. Do we label it the domain of men and in doing so, erase the women who have cleaned our toilets—in restaurants, hotels, and our own personal homes—so we can pretend that we are the brave ones?
Or do we face our shit head-on, accept that we are it, it is us, and deal: “It’s happening, it’s happening. It happened.”
Stephanie K. Hopkins writes short stories, non-fiction, and young adult fiction. You can find her work in such anthologies and journals as Painted Bride Quarterly, Blithe House Quarterly, Dirty Girls, and Make Mine a Double: Why Women Like Us Like to Drink (Or Not). She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and was a finalist for the 2006 Rauxa Prize for Erotic Fiction. She recently finished a young adult novel, Edge of Seventeen, and is now working on a memoir about her adventures as an ex-professor turned bartender. She has a PhD from New York University and has taught writing at NYU, Bard College, and The New School. She is also a founding member of the Brooklyn Writers Collaborative. Her weekly column, “Love Notes,” for the Westport Hamlet Hub, bears witness to our fascination with love. You can follow her at Twitter@stephaniehop1.