Good girls go to heaven, bad girls conquer Hollywood

Recent hits such as Young Adult and Bridesmaids show that the film industry is finally waking up to the allure of the anti-heroine.

There's a new kind of girl in Hollywood. She'll steal your happily married high-school sweetheart. She'll vomit over her bridesmaid dress, and then she'll probably beat you up.

Anti-heroines are finally a box office bet in Hollywood. Not only are the cast of Bridesmaids clutching a handful of Oscar nominations, but Rooney Mara has a nod too for her portrayal of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo's Lisbeth Salander, a protagonist who's practically a sociopath.

Last week, Young Adult was released in the UK. It reunites Juno writer and director, Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman respectively, and stars Charlize Theron as Mavis, a 37-year-old author who lives in a teen fantasy world. She goes home to reclaim her first love. Only snag is, he's married with a baby.

This should automatically alienate an audience, especially a female one, but in the US, Young Adult opened to strong reviews. According to critics, Mavis is mean, manipulative – and magnificent.

"I just sensed a void in cinema," says Oscar winner Cody of her latest creation. "That sounds pretentious, but I felt like it had been a long time, perhaps never, since I had seen a female lead character who was unsympathetic and flawed and ugly. I mean obviously not physically – this is Charlize. But I felt like that female anti-hero needed to be written.

"So I had the idea of somebody who is emotionally stunted and peaked at high school, and now wonders in her 30s how she can be the queen bee again."

Mavis has a small dog and a big drinking problem. But the reason audiences look beyond her brittle outer shell, according to Theron, is because they recognise she is real.

"Most women can see themselves in Mavis," she claims. "I think a lot of the things she does that are so unflattering are the things all of us do in survival mode. The little lies, the way we all think the grass is greener. And she's very lonely. I think we've all experienced that."

Mavis is a grown-up mean girl; Mean Girls, written by comedian Tina Fey in 2004, reinvented the modern high-school bitch. Yet in that movie good-girl-gone-bad Cady (played, ironically, by Lindsay Lohan) has a revelation that her behaviour is wrong. And in last year's Bad Teacher, Cameron Diaz's slutty, foul-mouthed heroine is tamed by the love of a good man (or at least, the love of Jason Segel).

Young Adult doesn't offer any such comfort.

"In movies there are always moments of redemption, in life not so much," says Cody.

"I thought of ending it more traditionally. But then I asked myself, 'what are you doing to do? Are you going to go balls-out, or neuter it?"

Even so, she was nervous it would never see the light of day.

"We're used to the beautiful mean girl, but we're not used to her being the heroine. And in Hollywood, no one says, 'Oh I'm so happy you've written an interesting, challenging film.' People are happy when you turn in something that seems familiar and has broad appeal."

Fortunately for Cody, Bridesmaids was the surprise hit of the summer. Its gross comedy has been matched by its gross profits, around $300m. In the wake of its success, every studio has been screaming for its own subversive female hit – and Bridesmaids writer and star Kristen Wiig believes the door's opened for a different kind of heroine to creep in.

"I didn't write some kind of feminist manifesto allowing women to be as badly behaved as men. But I did want to write about a real woman in her 30s who was looking round and going 'I am not supposed to be here.' As my character Annie says, 'I am single, forty thousand dollars in debt and I live with a weirdo.' Maybe it's not pretty, but guys do realise that women don't always wear make-up, and they do drink and swear."

"Scripts like this haven't ever existed," chimes in Melissa McCarthy. The 41-year-old actress and producer has an Oscar nomination for her interpretation of larger-than-life Midwesterner Megan. After all, McCarthy goes on to ask, when was the last time you saw a funny movie with six women who aren't young anymore?

The cast of Bridesmaids behave like British ladettes at the height of the Britpop era – they get drunk, throw up, and even take a dump in the street. Without the backing of gross-out comedy king Judd Apatow as producer, it wouldn't have been made.

"Before our movie, studios were like, 'no no, women aren't like that, they won't want to see that'," says Apatow. "It was too uncertain a bet for Hollywood. Yet the audience for Bridesmaids was 70 per cent female. In some way, they were seeing themselves."

Now everyone wants their own maid of dishonour – off the back of it, Rebel Wilson, who played Wiig's flatmate in the film, has been cast in a leading role – as a heroine nicknamed "Pig Face" in the Will Ferrell-produced comedy Bachelorette. The movie, made for $3m, premiered at this year's Sundance festival. It stars Kirsten Dunst, Lizzie Caplan and Isla Fisher as three friends appalled that their ugly friend is getting married before them.

All of these films are written by women; Bachelorette is by 30-year-old Leslye Headland, who fondly describes it as "nihilistic". One critic described it as "Tarantino for girls".

The studios, who since 2008 have been reluctant to take any wild bets, are slowly recognising that the desires of the female audience can be as filthy as the male. They're courting Annie Mumolo, the co-writer of Bridesmaids, Melissa McCarthy and New Girl and No Strings Attached writer Elizabeth Meriwether.

Has Hollywood suddenly discovered What Women Want? "Historically, women have sat through about eight million movies made for men", replies Apatow. "I think we're about to see the balance redressed slightly. And far from being disappointed by them, I think guys are just as happy to see these films too."

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