Wedding Week: ‘My Best Friend’s Wedding’ Is a Right-Wing Nightmare Interpretation of Women

Julia Roberts in My Best Friend’s Wedding
This is a guest post by Mab Ryan.
I saw My Best Friend’s Wedding when it premiered in 1997. At the time, I thought it was an interesting reversal of the rom-com convention that the leading lady always gets her man. Instead, the leading lady was the villain, while her competition won the happy-ever-after. I remember being disturbed that my friend really wanted Julia Roberts’ character to win the man’s affections. Watching it again now, I have moved past disturbed into nauseated. If Julia Roberts plays the villain, who is the heroine? There are no good options because both main female characters are terrible examples of womanhood.
To get us into the wedding spirit, the credits open over a pink background with four women singing and dancing to Dusty Springfield’s “Wishin’ and Hopin’.” A white woman dons a bridal gown, with three women (two white and one of indeterminate race) in bridesmaid’s dresses. The woman of color is wearing a different color/style gown than the others, for no apparent reason. Enjoy her, because she’s the closest thing to a POC character in this movie. The dance portrays the gist of the US wedding fantasy: cooing over a sparkling diamond ring, tossing a bouquet, pulling at a white glove with one’s teeth, etc. The song ends with the bridesmaid’s genuflecting at the bride’s feet, the bride looking up at a white glow washing over her, like an angel. Good girls follow the proper gender script and have perfect weddings.
Someone nicely made a collage of all this.
Julianne (Julia Roberts) is a restaurant critic. Tuck that fact away because it’s the only indication you’ll get that she has any kind of life outside of the sudden obsession that erupts for the course of the movie. Best friend and former lover Michael (Dermot Mulroney) calls while she’s working, prompting a stream of expositionary nostalgia, and damn if she didn’t just remember the half-assed pact they once made that if they were both still single at 28 (that magical age) they would just give up and marry each other. Too bad he just found someone else now that she’s decided she’s ready to settle for him.
Michael is marrying Kimmy (Cameron Diaz), and they want Julianne to be maid of honor. Julianne falls off the bed on hearing this, cluing us in that we can expect to see more of the Cute Clumsy Girl trope. The wedding is in four days. Yeah, she’s been on a book tour for the past month, but you couldn’t reach her on that foot-long cell phone? The second Julianne hears about the nuptials she decides to break up the marriage and steal the groom. Say what? She had zero romantic interest in this guy until now. “This is my whole life’s happiness. I have to be ruthless.” Aim high, sister!
This character embodies the worst stereotypes of feminists. We’re told she rarely cries, never wears pink, and hates romance and public displays of affection. She’s had no prior interest in monogamy, preferring to enjoy sexual encounters with a series of men. Rather than this being empowering, the movie depicts her in the way any right-wing radio host would expect: a bitter, jealous hag, disillusioned with the single, career-focused life, bent on destroying other women in pursuit of marriage.
Her competitor isn’t a great feminist role model either. Kimmy is the daughter of a rich man who owns . . . something about baseball. Ebert’s review refers to him as a “sports owner,” so we’ll go with that. She’s eight years Michael’s junior and about to forgo her senior year in college (as an architecture major) to travel with her sports writer husband-to-be. Several times, she expresses her preference to finish school and have a life of her own—but but but if it means losing Michael (it does) she will give it all up.
Kimmy is direct with Julianne, stating that she feels inadequate compared to the pedestal that Michael has put his old friend on. “I thought I was like you and proud to be, until I met Michael and found out I was a sentimental schmuck like all those flighty nitwits I’d always pitied.” Yikes. She also explains that she hasn’t chosen one of her cousin/bridesmaids to be maid of honor because they’re “basically vengeful sluts.” This movie does not have a high opinion of women.
Michael walks in on Julianne in her underwear like it ain’t no thang. He is the signal tower for mixed messages, and I’ve no doubt he knows exactly how he’s playing both of these women. But he’s just a garden variety asshole next to Julianne’s maliciousness. At a karaoke bar, Kimmy is conspicuously terrified, but Michael needles her to perform. Julianne takes the mic on the pretense of saving Kimmy, but instead forces her into performing, a feat that backfires when Kimmy’s tone deaf, but her brave performance wins the audience’s admiration and applause. Sadly, this is the most inventive ploy in a plot that has Julianne trying on the wedding ring and getting it stuck on her finger. Wacky!
Julianne cruelly forces a terrified Kimmy into singing karaoke.
Now’s as good a time as any talk about George. No wedding movie is complete without the Gay Best Friend™ played here by gay actor Rupert Everett. His sexuality is actually referenced rather than implied, so that’s progress I guess. But he’s never shown in a romantic situation with a man. And though he does host dinner parties and attend erotic book readings, these are callously interrupted by phone calls from the disturbed Julianne. He hates to fly, but does so (twice!) to come to Julianne’s rescue and offer her the sage counsel that her attempts to sabotage this wedding are doomed and she needs to get over herself. In so many words.
“It’s amazing the clarity that comes with psychotic jealousy,” George says to Julianne.
To make matters more homophobic, in a move that makes absolutely no sense, George is press-ganged into playing the part of Julianne’s fiancé. It’s really gross to watch a gay man forced to play beard to a straight woman, shoved into a closet to suit her conniving privilege. Kimmy hyperventilates in relief that Julianne is apparently no longer her competition, because nothing promises a more stable marriage than making sure there are no hot women around to tempt your man. George gets his revenge by telling apocryphal stories about meeting Julianne in a mental institution where she was receiving shock therapy, because we might as well add mocking the mentally ill to this movie’s list of sins.
Julianne’s meddling turns criminal when she fraudulently uses Kimmy’s father’s email account to send a message that will make Michael want to call off the wedding. The scheme works for about five whole minutes, but Michael decides to go through with the wedding after all. The denouement occurs when Julianne admits her love for Michael and plants a big smooch on him at the wedding brunch, in sight of the bride-to-be. Kimmy runs off crying, Michael runs after Kimmy, Julianne runs after Michael, and no one runs after Julianne because, no joke, she is terrible. She admits this in a lady’s room showdown with Kimmy, while a racially mixed group of women surround them, calling for a cat fight. “I’ve done nothing but underhanded, despicable, not even terribly imaginative things since I got here.” That’s okay movie writers! Acceptance is the first step to improvement. 
Kimmy confronts Julianne in the ladies room where we are reminded that POC do exist.
Michael and Kimmy somehow make up, which is great for them if you don’ t mind that he’s a self-important jerk who will probably end up screwing Julianne/other women on business trips in years to come, or that Kimmy has no self-esteem and is counting on this guy to be her EVERYTHING. Julianne knows that she has lost, and now that it is a solid two hours later and she’s no longer a threat, she’s able to perform her duties as maid of honor and offer the happy couple a toast. Mozel tov. It’ll probably be at least a day before Julianne gets arrested for tampering with a company computer and committing fraud (we can only hope).
George makes that second flight to be at the reception to provide solace for Julianne. I was 14 when this movie debuted and still part of the homophobic evangelical culture I was raised in. I remember thinking it would be nice if these two could now hook up, because I knew that George was gay, but I figured he could “reform.” I’m pleased to say the movie does nothing to encourage this interpretation. He states outright that he has no romantic intentions toward her. And sure, it’s great to have a friend who will drop everything and pamper you even when you have just proven to be a soulless nightmare, but let’s quit using the magical queer, huh?
The takeaway: gay men exist to render aid to straight ladies. Lesbians do not exist. Fat people do not exist. People of color exist only in sports stadium restrooms. Mental disabilities are funny! Women who pursue independence are terrible, and they really just want marriage. Women who pursue marriage by sacrificing their own desires and goals are good girls who are rewarded with husbands. Straight white men, just keep doing what you do, because in the end, you’ll get some girl or other.

Mab Ryan is a fat, geeky, queerish, rainbow-haired feminist currently studying Art and Creative Writing at Roanoke College.
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13042740730713682014 Bitch Flicks

    Wow, I interpreted this movie really, really differently than you. That’s interesting. There are pieces of your review that I really agreed with – Kimmy quitting college to marry doucheface is something that grates more and more with every passing year. But, I think I read a lot of things as broad satire and subversion that you saw as just straight up misogyny. For example – the Wishin’ and Hopin’ opening, I always saw as a very satiric and silly sign that the movie was going to take a certain tone. I mean, Ani freakin’ Difranco sings the song! I think I also embarrassingly relate to Julianne in this movie. When my first long-term ex moved in with his new girlfriend, I freaked out and tried (not so subtly) to make him fall back in love with me. I didn’t particularly want him, and it probably would have been disastrous had I succeeded, but he was like a security blanket for me, and him moving on brought out something ugly in me. I think My Best Friend’s Wedding is brave in showing that ugliness in full force and telegraphing pretty clearly to the viewer throughout that Julianne really doesn’t love Michael and really wouldn’t be happy with him.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13042740730713682014 Bitch Flicks

    I never understood what is so idolize-worthy about Julianne, even in the movie’s universe, but maybe it would be better if she and Michael would end up together since they deserve each other, and leave poor Kimmy alone to grow her spine and find someone who does love her.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13042740730713682014 Bitch Flicks

    What does POC mean?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13042740730713682014 Bitch Flicks

    POC = people of color or person of color