Months ago, I saw a copy of First Wives Club on sale for $3 and instinctively picked it up, planning on finding it a good home (I’d already upgraded my VHS to DVD). That good home turned out to be with Sarah, who woke up a few weeks later to me screaming via text that I was a genius for thinking we had to reunite for a life lessons post (ICYMI, we collaborated on this one for Troop Beverly Hills and enjoyed the hell out of it). Delightful text thread aside, we were both immediately on board. Not only are we celebrating the 20th anniversary of this modern classic, but there’s a TV Land series based on the movie in development and the three leads are reuniting for a new project at Netflix centering around former members of a girls group (if they don’t perform “You Don’t Own Me”, so help me). What better time to take a look back? (Also, I wrote “90s are back, damn” in my notes for this and I don’t think Sarah will forgive me if I leave that gem out but seriously you guys, the 90s are back. Damn.). I highly recommend a rewatch if you haven’t seen this one in a while because it holds up. Everything the ladies go through is relevant today, and there’s still much to learn from our beloved Annie, Brenda and Elise.
First of all: Maggie IS a genius, and if you’ve followed her HOF posts, you already know this. Second of all: I can sleep better knowing our dear readers know that the 90s are back, damn. I remember seeing the First Wives Club VHS in my mom’s collection when I was a kid and thinking nothing more about it than how interesting it was to see the lady who sang “That ‘I’m beautiful dammit’ song” on the cover (I heard that song A LOT growing up and it’s still in heavy rotation now, thanks Mom). Once I and my undying love for the Divine Miss M grew, I finally saw for myself what an amazing movie this is, and continues to be. Sure, it’s fun and it’s extremely quotable, but the most important thing is that everyone can gain something from this. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never gone through a divorce, and it doesn’t matter what age you are. These ladies are doling out life lessons like crazy, and you just might take them to heart in the middle of all that laughing you’re doing.
It’s okay to eat alone.
This is such a fleeting scene, but it’s one of those things that makes me shout “WHY” at the screen every time I see it. Brenda sits down unaccompanied to a meal at a restaurant while literally everyone around her throws the most unnecessary side eye her way, and it’s incredibly frustrating. There’s a stigma to eating alone in public when there really shouldn’t be. Everyone at this restaurant obviously assumes that Brenda is lonely and therefore should be pitied, but since when are alone and lonely the same thing? And why is the default reaction to seeing someone eat alone condescension? A table for one doesn’t mean you’re unloved, so let’s start shedding the stigma, unwarranted side eye and all. Because sometimes, you want to take yourself out. Sometimes, nothing says “Me time” like a meal you didn’t cook and peace while you eat it. And sometimes, you’re just hungry and want to do something about it.
I mean, you’ve got to eat, right? So treat yo self. You deserve it.
The importance of self-care.
One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when Elise is working out and says she gets her best ideas then, it clears her head and makes her think straight, everything makes sense. Unfortunately it’s not quite the same for me, I spend most of the time working out counting down the minutes until I can stop, but I do have a similar thing. When I do my hair and makeup in the morning, I get time just to myself, with no one making demands of me, and I’ve gotten tons of ideas and small breakthroughs then, sometimes for HOF posts, sometimes for work, even ways to solve problems with friends that have weighed on me. I usually have my phone on the bathroom counter and can make a note or send a quick text so I don’t forget. It’s a pretty simple thing to take that 45 minutes or so for myself, but it helps set me up to be in a good place for the rest of the day.
And listen, I think a lot of the time when people tell you to take care of yourself, they end it with something about how you can’t be any good to anyone else unless you’re good to yourself first. But forget about the part about everyone else. Whatever your self-care is, prioritize it. It’s not selfish to take care of yourself for you.
Anger is healthy.
Before it’s revealed that Dr. Leslie Rosen is a terrible person, sleeping with Annie’s husband while treating her (hi, morals are a thing and they’re helpful), she does have a valid point: Annie struggles with unexpressed anger at the beginning of the movie. Surely a product of her efforts to present a happy and trouble-free home life to the outside world, Annie opts for saying what she thinks people want to hear, rather than what she really feels. Look, I get avoiding unnecessary confrontation, and I understand the desire for keeping the peace, but not to the point where you think anger is forbidden. I love the scene where Annie gets absorbed in Dr. Rosen’s foam bat exercise because for a brief moment, she’s finally getting all that pent-up anger out before she even finds out about the affair. You shouldn’t have to swallow injustices, and you shouldn’t feel like expressing your true feelings is wrong. Keeping everything bottled up is a surefire way to self-destruction, so let it out if something bothers you. That weight off your shoulders will feel so wonderful.
“You’ve stopped apologizing for yourself all the time.”
Considering the way that Annie’s mother and soon-to-be ex-husband speak to her (“I don’t mean to criticize but you have no feeling for noodles,” “You couldn’t possibly pull off something like this” just for starters), it’s no wonder that somewhere along the way she lost that confidence to be unapologetically herself, out loud. But once she reconnected with Brenda and Elise and had the support she needed, Annie started to take back her agency and, as her daughter pointed out, she stopped apologizing for herself all the time. By the end of the movie, she’s telling Aaron to drop dead and dancing in the streets with her friends, belting out “You Don’t Own Me”.
Listen, if you make a mistake, if you hurt someone, of course you should own it, try to learn from it, and apologize — but women have got to stop giving in to the conditioning to apologize for speaking up, for merely existing. Raise your hand if you’ve ever proofread a work email before sending it and noticed an opinion or suggestion prefaced with “I’m sorry, but” *raises hand* It’s crazy to me that this is still a thing in 2016, but here we are. Sure, we have the first female presidential candidate from a major party, but does she get criticized for being shrill and told to smile? Of fucking course she does. I know firsthand it’s difficult and it’s a process, but pay attention to how often you apologize and for what exactly, and try to restrain yourself when all you’re doing is contributing to a conversation, whether it’s at work or with a significant other, friends, family. You deserve to take up some space in this world.
“Lesbians are great nowadays!”
Aside from being one of the best lines in this thing (come on, you know it is), the events that come after highlight the benefits of being open to social change. The scene where the ladies visit Chris at the lesbian bar is a standout, because each of them gets something positive out of it in spite of having little connection to the LGBT community: Brenda commiserates with a woman who’s in the same boat, Annie has a unique bonding moment with her daughter, and Elise is having the time of her life dancing her ass off. And all of that wouldn’t have happened if they succumbed to the discriminatory outlook on society that prevailed when they were Chris’ age.
We could even broaden this to include all women regardless of sexual orientation, because while the times were starting to change when the ladies graduated college together, there was still a twisted mentality about the roles of women in society. And in a way, you can see the progression of that mentality in the generations of Annie’s family. Up until the end of the film, her mother represents the antiquated theory that all you need is a husband to make you happy. On the other end of the spectrum is Chris, completely progressive and eager to give the men that wronged these women a taste of their own medicine. Annie sits somewhere in the middle, struggling to present a happy marriage on the surface, but starting to inch out of that as the movie progresses until she completely shuns the façade and becomes a happier person as a result.
Prejudices are taught, not inherent; growing up in a conservative town, I’ve seen it happen time and time again. But if you do your best to simply keep an open mind to what’s foreign to you, I promise you your life will be better because of it. It may not result in dancing in a gay bar (although, who knows?), but you will be subjected to so many wonderful experiences you will never have had otherwise. You will encounter amazing people you may not have expected to cross paths with. Not to mention, you will be one less person carrying unnecessary hate in their back pocket. And this world needs all the love it can get.
“I’m saying this to you with love, compassion and the spirit of true sisterhood: You are full of shit!”
When the ladies hit a low point in their journey, it’s obvious that Elise is drinking too much and feeling sorry for herself. She’s lost perspective and is full of excuses, leading Brenda to once and for all call her on her shit. Now, if Brenda didn’t care about Elise, she probably would have let her get away with claiming that she drinks because she’s highly sensitive (“I do have feelings. I’m an actress, I have all of them!”) and not pointed out the ridiculousness of Elise being surrounded by her image. But she does care, she doesn’t want Elise to continue on a downward spiral and that’s why she won’t let it go. When Elise was cleaning up after their fight, she stopped and took notice of how many empty bottles there were, when she might have breezed right past it without Brenda’s words in mind. And this is important: It’s Brenda that Elise goes to for help, it’s Brenda who she still trusts because she knows that when Brenda said “with love, compassion and the spirit of true sisterhood,” she meant it. Everyone needs this friend who’s not afraid to tell you the truth and then help you deal with it. I tend to call this the Miranda friend, after Sex and the City, but we can go with Brenda friend too. We’ve seen all too frequently what happens to public figures who surround themselves with yes men and lose touch with reality, so why chance it ourselves? While the truth may hurt sometimes, it’s necessary to hear and a true friend will use it to help you instead of hurt you.
We were a group. We ARE a group.
I love the flashback scene the movie opens with, showing the four friends celebrating their college graduation with Cynthia’s gift of pearl necklaces. As she declares “All right, we are all bound together by friendship and love” (only to have Brenda chime in “and jewelry!”), you can’t help but feel charmed and hopeful. It’s such a sweet, yet naive moment. Friendship necklaces were a rite of passage in my youth, but they’re no guarantee that a friendship will be lasting. Life gets busy, things come up — your friends aren’t always going to be down the hall in your dorm, eventually you’re going to have to make an effort. This is something I’ve learned firsthand, I haven’t always been good at hanging onto people and there are friends who I used to talk to daily who are now just occasional commenters on my Facebook. Nowadays, when I find someone I have a kinship with, who I really want in my life, I try to make the effort to keep tabs on them and keep up with how they’re doing. It’s not that hard to send a text or email to keep the lines of communication open. And it’s so worth it. As the ladies realize once they’re reunited, they can do anything with the support their friendship gives them. From something as seemingly small as singing a Lesley Gore song to something more serious, like taking back the agency that you’ve lost to an ex, it’s easier with your friends behind you.
You can still grieve a fallen relationship, even if your ex is a dick.
Taking a closer look at the ladies’ reactions to their failed marriages has always been interesting to me, because their ex-husbands are varying degrees of scum (I’ve honestly lost count of how many times I sent off a quick “Boys are gross” to Maggie in the process of this post), and therefore the ladies are varying degrees of hurt. Elise is angry, Annie’s in a state of shock that eventually gives way to anger, but Brenda is the only one who seems to truly be in mourning over the connection with Morty she once knew. When the First Wives Club is first conceived, she says that she doesn’t want him hurt, just dumped. She’s upset that he won’t be sitting next to her at Jason’s bar mitzvah, saying, “We’re not a family anymore.” She cries while they break into the penthouse to swipe his books. That inner conflict between sadness and anger is one of the realest things about this movie. And it’s completely relatable.
You can recognize that your relationship became toxic, and you can recognize that you’re better off without them. The whole mid-life crisis thing is a disgusting trope and Morty without a doubt made some gross missteps. But gross missteps don’t completely erase the good times, no matter how hard you try to forget. You want to be able to move on right away, but the reasons why you were attracted to them in the first place are still going to be in your mind, and the memories will sting. It’s okay to be sad over the good things. But giving yourself time to grieve them will eventually lead to reconciling yourself with the fact that things have changed, and you will move on to better things.
“And after that, of course, I want world peace.”
When the women formed the club, they insisted that they weren’t talking about revenge, they were talking about justice — and even though it seems like they’re winking at us, they do appear to believe it to an extent. Annie, Elise and Brenda had each been wronged by the one person who they should have been able to trust was in their corner, and thus far with no consequences — until those wedding rings were tossed in that glass of champs. But even though the men did have it coming, the ladies were right when they realized halfway through that they were thinking too small and being petty. Getting back at their exes was only going to make them feel better temporarily, and absolutely put them on the same level. I think some people view the movie ending as a de-clawing of the source material (seriously, have you read the book? It’s dark), but I love it. “Don’t get mad, get everything” makes for a cute cameo, Ivana, but Operation Hell’s Fury swinging into action in order to use the considerable resources the ladies and their exes have at their disposal to help other women in the same position as the friend they lost makes for such a positive and fulfilling resolution to their story. It’s such a good reminder to think beyond ourselves sometimes.
“Sisters are doin’ it for themselves.”
The justice (revenge? No, justice) in this movie is fun, but to me, The First Wives Club has always been about these ladies finding themselves outside of their marriages. At the beginning of the movie, the women feel as though they have given the best years of their lives to men who didn’t deserve them. As time goes by, however, it’s clear that the best is yet to come, as they not only thrive post-divorce, but also do good in the world, founding a crisis center for women in Cynthia’s honor. Life goes on, and life is great.
It’s even in the music. If the “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves” montage doesn’t grab you, let’s take the beginning and end of the movie into consideration. The first song we hear as the opening credits begin is Dionne Warwick’s “Wives and Lovers.” It’s one of those songs from the ‘60s that sounds bubbly and fun at first, but then you listen to the lyrics in a modern-day mindset and think “Ohhhh no.” Just look at some of these lyrics: “Day after day/There are girls at the office/And men will always be men/Don’t send him off/With your hair still in curlers/You may not see him again.” Can you hear my exasperated sighs? Because they’re happening and they’re loud. But as problematic as that song is, it’s an apt introduction to the film, because it sets up the societal mentality these women came of age in, and it’s the mentality they’re fighting against throughout the film. Skip to the end of the movie, and we end with Brenda, Elise, and Annie singing Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” as they dance in the streets of New York, an anthem that should always be sung with the enthusiasm of our leading ladies. (Fun fact: “Wives and Lovers” and “You Don’t Own Me” were recorded around the same time, and I could write a book about the completely fascinating contrast of messages to women in the ‘60s, but for the sake of brevity…)
It’s never too late to discover who you are outside of any relationship, any standard, any weird social box that probably shouldn’t even be a thing in the first place. And once you do have a grasp on your true self, there will be people who will embrace you for everything those relationships, standards, or boxes didn’t. Sometimes, those people were by your side all along, ready to burst out into song and lightly choreographed dance with you. So sing loud and dance freely, because the best things are just around the corner.
BONUS LESSON: You don’t own me.
Maggie: If you listen to the lyrics in You Don’t Own Me, you realize the bar is set pretty low — all Lesley Gore is singing about is wanting to be treated with respect. She’s not a toy to show off and she doesn’t want to be told what to do, in exchange for the same respect from her. Should maybe go without saying, yeah?
Sarah: I completely agree about the low bar in this song, but I will say that I absolutely love the second verse, where she sings “Don’t tie me down, ‘cause I’ll never stay.” The ridiculous lack of respect for women around that time was acknowledged, and Lesley Gore was having none of it. You would think that by the time The First Wives Club came out, the tides would turn, but alas…
Maggie: The men in this movie, you guys.
Sarah: I don’t want to keep saying boys are gross, but also I do?
Maggie: Bill built a career off of Elise’s coattails and then held her back, contributing to her feeling like she wasn’t enough. The gaslighting that Annie experiences at the hands of Aaron is nothing short of disgusting, he of the “stay calm” and “you know how you manipulate me” when all Annie is trying to do is have a reasonable conversation. Morty’s midlife crisis and shady business practices, including hiding assets from his wife, might only be a start: The costume designers worked overtime to make Bette Midler look frumpy and overweight and it almost just barely gets the point across that maybe she eats because she hasn’t been happy for a while.
Sarah: I’m sorry, but you can never obscure the Divine Miss M’s fabulosity no matter how hard you try. And even though we only get a bit of Cynthia’s ex-husband at the beginning of the movie, he surely makes an impression by showing up at her funeral with his new wife and groping her literally the entire time. I can’t even begin to wrap my head around how vile that is. People are grieving, get a fucking room. Or just don’t do it.
Maggie: The “boys are gross” texts? MERITED. None of the women got the support that they needed and deserved from their husbands, but look at all they could accomplish once they had each other, friends who offered unconditional love, encouragement and, oh yeah, respect. Elise decided to do the play and stopped trying to please everyone else; Brenda took care of herself and I think felt stronger when faced with the prospect of reconciling with Morty after standing up to him; and Annie is working outside the home with people who appreciate what she has to offer.
Sarah: They’re just happier, and freer, at the end of the movie. They stopped putting up with the bullshit the guys pull, did some incredibly brave things and regained sight of Lesley Gore’s message while helping other women. Sisters are doin’ it for themselves while paying it forward.
Maggie: Dare I say goals?
Do you have any life lessons from The First Wives Club? Share in the comments!