ARTS & CULTURE

Romy, Michele and why women should be allowed to be mediocre, too

As Romy And Michele’s High School Reunion turns 20, Caroline O’Donoghue asks why men should have a monopoly on being unexceptional

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By Caroline O'Donoghue on

There’s been a rumbling, lately, among the women I know. Maybe it’s happening among the women you know, too. It’s as slight as the movement between two tectonic plates and all it takes is a glass of wine and a plate of olives for it to bubble up ferociously to the surface.

“I am so, so sick,” a friend of mine announces at dinner, “of having to be a ‘smart’ bloody woman.”

It is the conversational equivalent of taking your bra off. The room eases and everyone starts unhooking along with her. We all know what she means – we know she’s not talking about being clever. She’s talking about culture’s obsession with the Smart, Strong Woman. We have all seen the headlines about how such-and-such a company wants to “empower smart women”, or how so-and-so is a “strong, smart woman”. It is as if gender equality only exists under the proviso that you have a PhD in Economics and a Master’s in Russian.

“ME, TOO,” pipes up another. “And y’know what? I’m sick of feeling guilty that I don’t know how to code. I understand why it’s important to have female coders, but… but..”

“But coding is BORING. And I’m not going to feel morally inferior for not wanting to do it.”

“I just want,” says the first friend, now leaning so heavily into the centre of the table that I’m afraid her hair is about to catch fire on the candlestick, “I just want permission to be every bit as ignorant and short-sighted as the men I work with.”

“That’s it!” we all cry in unison. That’s all we want – we’re sick of having to be good examples; we’re sick of having to be seen to be clever; we’re sick of holding ourselves and other women in the media to impossible standards of moral and intellectual goodness. We just want to be.

The mark of true equality isn’t about celebrating female exceptionalism – it’s the acceptance of female mediocrity

Romy And Michele’s High School Reunion turns 20 this month, a fact which is both dizzying to me – particularly when 1990s fashion is so eerily on point now – and feels perfectly timed with how the women I know have been feeling. Robin Schiff’s cult comedy stars Mira Sorvino (fresh from her 1996 Oscar win for Mighty Aphrodite) and Lisa Kudrow (smack in the middle of Friends fever) as two best friends living in LA who travel back to their hometown of Tucson, with the aim of impressing the people who were mean to them in high school. When they realise their lives aren’t as glamorous as they ought to be, they lie – they decide that they invented Post-its. Needless to say, it doesn’t exactly go to plan.

But you know all this, don't you? Like me, you might have even rented Romy And Michele’s High School Reunion every Saturday night for a year, and you might have even tried to learn the Time After Time dance with your “Romy”. Romy And Michele was Wayne’s World for girls – it was good-hearted, endlessly quotable and had a kind of surrealist, knockabout sense of humour that made it truly different to any other comedy out there. What’s more, it was very specifically female with its silliness. When Romy swaggers into a diner with her new power suit on and asks for “some kind of businesswoman’s special”, she is clowning at something we’ve all done – she’s trying to be another kind of woman, she’s failing at it without even realising and she’s so vainly preoccupied with keeping up the pretence that she will say anything to make herself sound more credible. You wouldn’t get Wayne Campbell or Stifler or Ferris Bueller asking for a businessman’s special. Romy and Michele is a film about women attempting to impress other women, and about the niggling insecurities when you are trying and failing to be the adult that you wish you were.

Romy and Michele’s goals are petty and small, and they fail at achieving them because they are – and I mean this with love – a little dumb. Outside of Michele’s sudden knowledge of how glue is made, they fumble from one interaction to the next, often missing the point of what just happened.

“What did you have to do?” asks a bewildered Michele, when Romy pulls up in a new red convertible.

“I had to give everyone in the service department hand jobs.”

While Legally Blonde showed us that even ditzy Elle Woods could have hidden intellect, Romy And Michele proves that you are worthwhile regardless

“Well, while you were doing that,” replies Michele, barely even blinking, “I made us a tape of all the nostalgic songs from high school to get us in the mood.”

“Michele?”

“What?”

“Do you really think I would do that? For a car? Just get in.”

Michele doesn’t know Romy is joking, and Michele doesn’t particularly care. Romy and Michele move through the world with open-hearted, hands-in-the-air glee and it strikes me, while rewatching, just how seldom we see that. There’s no shortage of dizzy blondes in 90s movies, but how often are they our heroes? How often are we encouraged to love them, to root for them? While Legally Blonde showed us that even ditzy Elle Woods could have hidden intellect, Romy And Michele proves that you are worthwhile regardless.

Natasha Hodgson, a playwright for theatre company Kill The Beast, feels very committed to creating unexceptional women with buckets of heart. One of her greatest characters, Eglantine Whitechapel, is a supernatural detective who is terrible at her job. “It’s all very well, this strain of Always Right Hard As Nails Solves The Case In Time For Tea female detectives, but the most interesting, entertaining characters are flawed – often proud, ridiculous, idiotic – and we have to delight in that,” says Hodgson. “Glorious stupidity shouldn’t be the birthright of characters played by Jonah Hill. Women can be total idiots, too – there’s nothing we can do about that, so let’s damn well enjoy it.”

That’s the thing: it’s easy to write a hard-as-nails female detective or a brilliant woman surgeon into your story, but the mark of true equality isn’t about celebrating female exceptionalism – it’s the acceptance of female mediocrity. Feminism is supposed to mean equality for everyone – and that “everyone” applies across boundaries of race, class, age and wits. I’m glad we have Sheryl Sandbergs, Michelle Obamas and Emma Watsons to inspire us, but I think we need Romys and Micheles to keep us sane.

“OK, so Michele and I did make up some stupid lie!” says an exasperated Romy at the end of the film. “We only did it because we wanted you to treat us like human beings. But you know what I realised? I don’t care if you like us, ’cause we don't like you. You're a bad person with an ugly heart and we don't give a flying fuck what you think!”

And that’s the lesson of this movie – because, yeah, you can be stupid. Yeah, you can be petty. But that doesn’t make you any less of a hero.

@Czaroline

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