‘Baby Mama’ and the History of the GFF

Photo: Clockwise from top left: Buena Vista, Universal, MGM, 20th Century Fox, Tristar Pictures, and United Artists

Baby Mama surprised some by collecting $17.4 million at the box office last weekend, outdoing stoner buddy movie Harold and Kumar. Far from the "women's pictures" of the fifties or the soft-focus Bette Midler weepies of the eighties, Baby Mama is the pinnacle of the new era of female buddy movies — a genre we like to call the GFF, or the Girlfriend Flick. Better, funnier, and more dimensional than those movies pejoratively dubbed "chick flicks," the GFF presents a more honest view of female friendship — one that swaps weeping, man-chasing, and cancer for trash-talking and road trips.

The first inklings that a movie with chicks could be more than a chick flick was 1989's Steel Magnolias, in which gal pals Dolly Parton, Sally Field, Olympia Dukakis, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, and Julia Roberts aligned their star power and balanced traditional female drama (babies, breakups, illness) with a new type of scene: chicks just hanging out and assaulting each other with zingy one-liners. (We’re still not sure what “Half a' Chickapee Parish would give their eyeteeth to take a crack at ole Ouiza” means.) Two years later, the women of Thelma & Louise went on their badass crime spree; it would have been a little less of a throwback if the adventures weren’t instigated by men being assholes or interrupted by Brad Pitt’s waistband cleavage. Still, this movie advanced a crucial GFF theme — the pure exhilaration of adventures with your best girlfriend, no guys allowed.

Although 1995's GFF Waiting to Exhale sentimentalized female bonding, it unleashed the movies' first honest female revenge fantasy — why shoot a man in the head when you can light up his clothes and Beemer? That same year, Boys on the Side put a contemporary GFF spin on the Odd Couple recipe to great effect — gritty dyke Jane (Whoopi Goldberg) and uptight real-estate agent Robin (Mary-Louise Parker) bonded over the fact that one calls it a "hoo hoo," the other a "cunt."

Female-buddy movies have been slow to cut the drama and the moralizing, but a few have really let the playful, neurotic, and sometimes vain female freak flag unfurl. In 1997, Romy and Michele's High School Reunion proved a satisfying GFF could be a giddy, shallow confection dressed in pink-and-purple dresses. Ghost World, meanwhile, championed the opposite side of the female id — portraying outcast teen girls whose primary charm was cynical, intellectual banter.

But it’s Baby Mama that nails the multiple ids of female friendship: implicitly competitive, nice until it’s really not, and occasionally preoccupied with babies and slutty clothes. And like every great girlfriend we've ever had, it's really funny, vulgar even. The below-the-belt humor (“Sorry I farted in your purse”; “I think she wants me to rub olive oil on your taint”) had us checking the marquee — that came not from an Apatow jam, but from a GFF! This is the type of GFF self-assurance we’ve been waiting for. —Elizabeth Cline