Is "Bad Teacher" Revolutionary or Regressive for Women?

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
June 27 2011 2:37 PM

Is "Bad Teacher" Revolutionary or Regressive for Women?

The movie critic Stephanie Zacharek thinks that the level of jerkdom that Cameron Diaz reaches as the heroine of the comedy Bad Teacher is "revolutionary," because she's the rare female comic lead who's never the butt of a joke. New York Times critic Manohla Dargis concurs, delighting in the fact that Diaz reveals her "inner thug." But not all the female critics believe Diaz's performance as the boozingest, meanest, most conniving middle school teacher on film is a win for women. Karina Longworth, writing in L.A. Weekly , strongly disagrees with Zacharek and Dargis :

The general argument holds that because studios produce so few films built around strong lady protagonists, Hollywood must hate women. But be careful what you wish for. Here, a "strong woman" means a lazy, lying, scheming, slutty, and obstinately materialistic one, whose sole redeeming virtue is her hard body (which the camera shamelessly ogles, as if the men watching need their hand held to look at an actress’s ass), who is so delusional that she thinks her ostentatious assholery is rock-star sexy, and whose delusions are essentially validated by narrative resolution.
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Longworth is right in that there are still not enough films built around lady protagonists-but I'd argue that we shouldn't be using every single one as a feminist litmus test. There was so much chatter around Bridesmaids , casting it as some sort of feminist victory because it had complex women characters doing gross things for laughs. But with comedy especially, the question we should be asking is was the movie actually funny. With Bridesmaids , my answer would be a resounding yes; with Bad Teacher* , not so much (I agree with Dana Stevens' review in Slate ; the redemption of Diaz's character felt unearned.)

Though I won't evaluate Bad Teacher on whether it has some sort of arbitrary feminist bona fides, I will say that I did agree with Zacharek on one point. It was refreshing to see a female comedic lead where the laughs weren't coming because she humiliates herself. "Even in a supposedly game-changing woman-centric comedy like Bridesmaids , you can’t just be a crude and funny Kristen Wiig," Zacharek writes. "You also have to be a little pathetic, a loser at dating with a recently failed baking business in your past." You also, more poignantly, have to shit yourself on screen. 30 Rock ekes humor from the same place-the show revels in the various humiliations of Liz Lemon. What we need, though, is not to insist Tina Fey make Liz Lemon less of a loser. We need there to be enough women leads that each one doesn't have to carry so much meaning.

Correction, June 28, 2011 : The original version of this post referred to Bad Teacher as Hot Teacher.

Jessica Grose is a frequent Slate contributor and the author of the novel Sad Desk Salad. Follow her on Twitter.