The idea that a comedy centering on the lives and experiences of women cannot be a moneymaker has all but faded away after Bridesmaids’ release back in 2011, but the debate over whether or not women, as a gender, are as funny as their male counterparts is still being actively debated today. In many ways, this is rather strange. After all, we have no shortage of funny women performing standup and starring in various roles on TV and in the movies. Of course, humor is highly subjective and culturally loaded. The things we find funny are a combination of personal preference and social constructs. Melissa McCarthy’s success as a comedian and status as the “new face” of female comedy is likewise a combination of fierce talent and the media's willingness to give her support.
The support that McCarthy, and other female comedians, receive tends to be tremendously ambivalent, a buttressing that continuously comes back to the idea that funny women are rare and unusual. Female comedians are still perceived as subversive, even though women like McCarthy have been performing comedy for years.
All of this points to the fact that our heightened awareness of sexism doesn’t necessarily stop it from occurring. Two years ago I ran into a male acquaintance who I hadn’t seen for some time. We caught up about career and relationship things, and then he mentioned that the woman he was seeing was a few years younger than himself, a ripe old 27.
“I really prefer dating younger women,” he told me earnestly. “After all, once a woman is my age—the late twenties—she starts having certain expectations. It must be sad that, as a woman, you have so much less time to explore and be young, what with your biological clock and all.”
This was said one part in earnest, one part as a playful jab, one part in an almost endearing attempt to talk to me about what it was like to be a woman, but it hit me like a brick and left me feeling exhausted and angry. I felt the same way when a male friend told me that he could gain as much weight as he liked without bearing any social consequences because that was just a women’s issue. Both women and men have stated unflinchingly that women just don’t age well, period. Comments like these are not intended to engage me in a dialogue about pressing gender concerns, nor are they attempts to think critically about an inherently sexist system. Instead, comments like these, which position gender stereotypes as stark, unchanging facts, are intended to keep women in a position of vulnerability and learned helplessness.
I keep being reminded of these types of comments as I consider the recent hubbub about McCarthy, whose tremendous success in TV shows (SNL, Gilmore Girls, Mike and Molly) and films (Bridesmaids and, most recently, The Heat) has inspired women and fueled further debate about whether women are funny or not. The debate, which is a recurrent one, seems to boil down to the issue of whether or not female comedians are as funny as male comedians. You can find such esteemed thinkers as Jerry Lewis, Christopher Hitchens and Adam Carolla considering it from various vantage points of subjectivity. Their comparisons always imply that women, rather than being seen as individuals who either possess or lack a capacity for humor, are instead seen as being somehow representative of all womankind.
While McCarthy is talented and incredibly likeable, she is also not the first female comedian to do physical comedy (Lucille Ball did that way back in the 50s, when stuffing chocolate into her bra, or contorting her face when crying, or falling over or into things when dancing). Nor is she the first to wear her weight proudly (Roseanne Barr did that throughout Roseanne in the 80s and 90s). She is also not the first to be raunchy and in-your-face (fortunately or not Joan Rivers still does that now). I don’t say this to downgrade McCarthy’s accomplishments or to criticize her work. However, I do find it strange that women are still perceived as being unusual when they are talented at any and all of these things. If McCarthy has broken out of a mold, she has broken out of a mold that many, many female comedians have already cracked.
The female comic, like the female writer, the female artist, the female filmmaker or the female public intellectual, is always seen as representative of a female experience, not a human one. True, female comedians today are allowed to play with a greater number of facades than they used to. There are “sexy” comedians like Chelsea Handler, Whitney Cummings and Sarah Silverman, who are each perceived as pretty first and funny second; “quirky” comedians (my favorite brand) like Tig Notaro, Aubrey Plaza and Kristen Schaal, whose dedication to awkwardness is thoroughly genderless; and “self deprecating” comedians like Tina Fey, Janeane Garofalo and Roseanne Barr, who willingly put themselves down for the sake of a few laughs. While each of these women individually brings great, unique talent to the industry, female comedians, more so than their male counterparts, are pigeonholed into certain set personas.
Of course, this is seen outside of Hollywood as well. It may be a function of our Internet age as much as run-of-the-mill sexism. I’ve been alternately thrilled and dismayed at the way online magazines like Slate and The Atlantic feature women’s issues sections—which serve the dual function of bringing women’s issues to attention and ghetto-izing them. It certainly is helpful to have all of my feminist commentary in one handy section of a magazine, but these publications, condescengingly enough, clearly don’t consider issues that affect women to be “news.” Issues pertaining to gender in general are presented as loftier lifestyle-oriented pieces. Bridesmaids was marketed as a game changer and seen as subversive because it featured an all-female cast, but it was also only one of a long line of female-centered films about getting married. While Bridesmaids was innovative in that it placed women in situations more rough and raunchy than was previously deemed appropriate or acceptable, Bridesmaids’ success did not reinvent Hollywood. as many feminists hoped it would. It simply paved the way for a new female brand, one which Melissa McCarthy has become the poster child for: the rough and raunchy female comic.
The Heat, McCarthy’s latest film, is effective and funny, but it is also hardly revolutionary in its approach to comedy. Its appeal to both genders is really based on the fact that the buddy cop comedy genre has been a historically male-oriented one. In determining a film’s importance, we still mainly worry about whether or not that film is going to appeal to men. Perhaps my cynicism sounds a bit world-weary. After all, The Heat does pass the Bechdel test, which posits that a movie’s gender equity can be gauged by whether or not we encounter two or more women in a film who talk about something other than a man. It highlights a positive and affirming female-friendship that seems genuinely affectionate and is not based around relationships with men. That said, I am coming to a point as a feminist critic where watching two women who don’t seem pathetic, or boring, or insular, or don’t make me feel like I want to shoot myself in the head is not enough for me anymore. The summer months are still a sea of bromances, as well as male-centered action and superhero movies, and I don’t feel grateful when I see women “allowed” to engage in the same vulgar and offensive humor that men have been playing at for years.
When writing this piece, I talked it over with a friend, who tried playing devil’s advocate with me. My friend said that all the female comics of the past 60 years were courageous game changers. They have worked hard to help women break into the comedy world. But while I agree that the socially-minded commentary of women like Margaret Cho, Wanda Sykes and Roseanne Barr have been tremendously inspiring and empowering, it is clear that the comedy circuit is still incredibly hostile to women. Our culture itself is hostile to women, skeptical of their successes, unwilling to see women’s accomplishments as anything more than a special interest work. The recent and prolonged debate about whether or not it is okay to joke about rape is often derailed by critics and comedians alike. Big headliners like Daniel Tosh often claim impunity when confronted by angry critics, highlighting how comedy can only be successful when there is complete freedom of speech. Unfortunately, the sheer ubiquity of these types of jokes reinforces the idea that women’s needs—for safety, consideration and respect—are simply not important, and that women’s needs are actually counter to the goals of comedy as a whole.
The trend of creating a kind of false gender discourse as a means of actually reinstating the status quo is not unique to the comedy circuit. In the past month blogger, researcher and artist Nickolay Lamm tried his hand at transforming Barbie so that her measurements would reflect the height, size and shape of an “average” American woman, rather than the obviously out-of-proportion measurements of the much worshipped and maligned traditional Barbie doll. In the pictures of this version of Barbie, you can see a shorter, slightly thicker Barbie, with a rounder chin and ass.
I’m not sure what I am supposed to feel about these kinds of projects. Most likely the same kind of gratitude I am expected to feel when women are given the main billing in a comedy. Are these new Barbies intended to help us recognize that the unattainable images we constantly see are, in fact, unattainable? That a short lived dialogue surrounding a trendy new meme will promote some kind of tangible change? The reality is very different. Every few years someone else comes along with a new reason for why the original Barbie is bad and how a more realistically shaped Barbie would help girls learn to feel good about themselves. And we all know that Barbie isn’t going anywhere. Little girls are not going to be fighting over these new Barbie models. If Barbie sells a bill of lies to girls and young women, “average" Barbie sells an even bigger such bill: that continuing a dialogue around a problematic image will help heal us. In reality, Barbie’s ubiquity is strengthened by clichés. These clichés surround her very existence, which is a part of America’s cultural fabric.
Our current view of female comedians reduces them to dolls. By this I don’t mean to suggest that we don’t laugh at the jokes female comedians make or listen to them when they talk about their experiences. What I mean is that we still reduce female comedians to their gender. Perhaps this is a problem of consumerism, as well as sexism. After all, we have just as many ridiculous and offensive stereotypes about masculinity being marketed to us today ( the idea that men are buffoons who can’t take care of children, for example, is a staple in sitcoms and commercials alike,) and the culture of masculinity is not one that most of us are trained to think critically about. At the end of the day, we buy the bill of goods we are sold, which is why PSAs about how unrealistic photoshopping is are doing nothing to help women (and men) feel better about themselves.
I enjoy laughing more than I enjoy criticizing things. In researching this piece, I loved having the opportunity to watch a lot of really wonderful and talented female comedians at their best. But the longer I kept researching, the angrier I got. Our world pretends to offer women a tremendous array of options, only to continuously remind women that we should be thankful for getting anything at all.
Anger, of course, often comes from a feeling of being out-of-control or helpless, and that is truly how I often feel when I talk about these issues. I know I have seen them constantly, every day, since I was a little girl. I know that there are a lot of compassionate and concerned thinkers, male and female, who really want to improve these issues. I also know, however, that real, permanent, far-reaching change won’t come from simply allowing women a greater number of stereotypes to play into. What we don’t need is another a parade of Barbies. It doesn’t matter if we accept all shapes, sizes, colors and any number of interesting and evocative outfits. At the end of the day, funny, talented women notwithstanding, the cultural machine is still just interested in churning out plastic.
Arielle Bernstein is a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at George Washington University and American University and also freelances. Her work has been published in The Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review, and South Loop Review, and she has twice been listed as a finalist in Glimmertrain's Family Matters Short Story Contests. She is Associate Book Reviews Editor at The Nervous Breakdown.