More than its blaring soundtrack of dated, but exuberant, pop, the sound I associate with Bad Moms is that of a template snapping into place. The movie tells the story of three women throwing off the shackles of multitasking, school bake sales, and cartoonishly shitty husbands. (Though not beauty standards: You still gotta look like Mila Kunis to snag the lead, even if the script goes out of its way multiple times to explain why she’s five to 10 years younger than her castmates.) Like every feel-good offering from a major studio, it has a pat takeaway, except Bad Moms’ is theoretically about social progress and dismantling gender norms; swap out “bad mom” for “super” in this Incredibles clip and you’ll get the gist. It’s Sisters. It’s Neighbors 2. It’s … a lightly feminist summer movie, smoothly piloting “woke” into the final stage of its protracted, much–think pieced life cycle: from a call to awareness to a backhanded compliment for big-budget brown-nosing.
The Wokebuster is not a new phenomenon. Like any ’90s kid who fashioned her mom’s hand-me-down shoulder pads into a Halloween costume, I’ve sat through my fair share of movies like Working Girl and Nine to Five — movies proudly certain that “women can have it all!” So even when they’re nominally original, Wokebusters are still retreads — a pantsuited branch on our ’80s-reboot family tree. But as hairspray and typewriters have given way to Lululemon pants and mommy blogs, the modern Wokebuster has developed a new set of signifiers. And this summer, it’s even become a bona fide subgenre, with the paint-by-numbers clichés to match. Once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all — and we’ll continue to see them for the next few summers, or at least until the bubble inevitably bursts, and women as a group end up back in movie jail for another 30 years. So here’s a guide to spotting a Wokebuster in four easy steps.
1. Serial Back-Patting
Bad Moms’ message is innocuous enough: The self-sacrificing ideal of American motherhood is an impossible standard forced upon women by Patriarchy version 1.2. The problem here is the jokes fall back on that exact stereotype of the perfectly composed housewife. Kathryn Hahn saying “cock” isn’t a punchline unto itself unless you’re surprised by a 40-something woman saying “cock.” Ditto Mila Kunis chugging vodka in a supermarket aisle. These moments remind us that when a movie or character actually walks the walk, they don’t need to talk the talk quite so loudly. “Being a mom today is impossible!” Kunis shouts. It’s about as subtle as the giant papier-mache Nixon head she makes for her kid’s history project.
This is what separates the Wokebuster from the genuinely progressive source material it rips off — the radical honesty and self-assuredness that have bled into pop culture as our societal norms have grown looser and our traditional gatekeepers have decreased in importance. It’s the carefree hedonism of Broad City, the unabashed messiness of Bridesmaids, and Catastrophe’s unflinching, obscene take on parenting.
Where the genuine article just does the damn thing, though, the Wokebuster loudly and repeatedly announces it’s doing the thing, how excited it is to do the thing, and how extremely important it is that somebody (them!) is doing the thing — all while doing the thing only half-heartedly. And then it gives up on the thing entirely in favor of a laugh, a neatly resolved third act (no shade to Trainwreck, but shade to Trainwreck), or a convenient villain. The men in Bad Moms may be idiots, but they’re so clueless that you can’t hold them accountable, like a puppy dog who pees all over your Pier 1 Imports rug. The moms, and the movie itself, reserve their real ire for a group of uptight PTA enforcers led by a tyrannical Christina Applegate. It turns out there is a way to be a bad mom: be anyone but Mila Kunis.
2. The Selectively Broken Glass Ceiling
A telltale sign of the Wokebuster is the presumption that its intended (mass) audience can only handle a tiiiiiiny amount of wokeness at a time. Inevitably, what doesn’t make the cut tends to involve class and race; the Wokebuster, as a distant cousin of the rom-com, is inevitably about Rich White Lady Problems. In Bad Moms, Mila Kunis’s character may struggle to balance her home life with her work, but that work is a part-time job subsidized by her husband’s career as a mortgage broker. Kathryn Hahn’s Carla is the only working-class member of the entire cast. And as an Applegate sidekick with barely a dozen lines, Jada Pinkett Smith is the only person of color, unless you count the objects of bone-headed and racist one-liners, like the one Kunis’s preteen drops about colleges so exclusive “they’re even rejecting Asians.”
This cast feels true to the real-life demographic of “overbearing parents and their midlife crisis–having counterparts.” Except it’s also true of every other movie that tries to combine progressive bona fides with bland universalism. (See the justified eyebrow-raising over Leslie Jones’s role in Ghostbusters — a movie that avoided some, but not all, trappings of the Wokebuster — as the only nonscientist of the bunch.)
Put another way: A show like Jane the Virgin isn’t about women, or about Latinos, or about cross-class/interracial/queer romance. It’s about all these things, without ever having to announce itself as such. The Wokebuster, on the other hand, is about maybe half the things it says it is, and generally the half that needs it the least.
3. The Actresses Going HAM
Every performatively woke cloud has a silver lining, and the Wokebuster is no exception. What it lacks in opportunity behind the camera, it partially makes up for with what happens in front of it. We still live in a world where 51 percent of the population gets 33 percent of all on-camera speaking roles; whatever their faults, Wokebusters bat way above average in that respect. And more women on screen means a greater diversity of roles.
Hence the rash of great, or at least intriguing, against-type performances in the 2015–2016 crop, an opportunity that’s too-often restricted for female stars. (How many actresses have gotten the chance to do what, say, Tom Cruise did in Tropic Thunder? Exactly.) These include but are not limited to:
- Tina Fey drunkenly puking on Liz Lemon’s grave in Sisters
- Melissa McCarthy going elder stateswoman for Ghostbusters
- Every single thing Rose Byrne does in the Neighbors franchise/under the watchful eye of Paul Feig
- And, here, Kathryn Hahn leaning full into the crazy for Bad Moms. The part itself is a thankless party-sidekick type in the vein of Rebel Wilson in How to Be Single (a Wokebuster that’s a category unto itself), though Hahn hasn’t built her career on this kind of performance the way Wilson has. And yet the commitment is nuts. I could watch Rabbi Raquel charge at a security guard in slo-mo for days.
4. The Bylines
The simplest litmus test of all, and the one Wokebusters almost always fail.
How about your revisionist history of a wildly sexist Craigslist memoir? Nope? Try again.
Is your movie “about” “motherhood” written by the same two-dude team behind The Hangover and a movie about Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds peeing in a magic fountain? Try again.
The easiest way to put your money where your extremely woke movie is? Pay people to tell their own stories. But according to Hollywood, that’s actually really hard.
Have any questions? Go ask your mother.