March 12, 2008

Who Says Women Aren't Funny?

Over a year ago, Christopher Hitchens, the misogynistic blowhard had an essay in Vanity Fair entitled Why Women Aren't Funny. The article pissed off a lot of people including me and now a little over a year later, Vanity Fair takes a look at the other side with its April cover story Who Says Women Aren't Funny.

Firstly, it pisses me off that just because Hitchens says women aren't funny that we now have to defend ourselves. It just plays into the bullshit that feminists are humorless. Alessandra Stanley (who writes about TV for the NY Times) goes behind the scenes with some of today's funniest women to look at how comedy has evolved since the days of the big screen screwball comedies which featured some of the highest profile women of the time. As Stanley says, today's comedians are found on TV, not film (because we all know that there are hardly any funny (or even non-funny) women starring on the big screen today.

The leader of today's funny women is feminist Tina Fey who parlayed her role as head writer on Saturday Night Live into the comedy 30 Rock, which she created, writes and stars in. (Shame on you if you don't watch this show, it is fantastic and funny.) She's about launch a new female buddy comedy Baby Mama co-starring Amy Poehler which will open the Tribeca Film Festival in NY on April 23rd.

Here are some quotes from the piece:

It used to be that women were not funny. Then they couldn't be funny if they were pretty. Now a female comedian has to be pretty- even sexy- to get a laugh. At least, that’s one way to view the trajectory from Phyllis Diller and Carol Burnett to Tina Fey. Some say it’s the natural evolution of the women’s movement; others argue it’s a devolution. But the funniest women on television are youthful, good-looking, and even, in a few cases, close to beautiful—the kind of women who in past decades might have been the butt of a stand-up comic’s jokes.
Comedy used to be about women making fun of themselves as well as everyone else, and you couldn't really make fun of yourself if you were too pretty (think of Gilda Radner). The pretty girls get everything. Now, the one place where looks didn't matter as long as you made them laugh, is being taken over by the pretty girls. Come on. What's left for the rest of us?
How this evolution happened is not entirely clear. The backlash school of feminism would argue that it’s the tyranny of a looks-obsessed culture that promotes sex appeal over talent, be it in comedy, pop music, or even sports.
Is there a backlash school of feminism? Are there classes available? Give me a break. It's not the backlash school of feminism that thinks our culture is looks obsessed -- it's the WHOLE CULTURE that KNOWS that we are obsessed with looks.
There has been an epochal change even from 20 years ago, when female stand-up comics mostly complained about the female condition—cellulite and cellophane—and Joan Rivers and Roseanne Barr perfectly represented the two poles of acceptable female humor: feline self-derision or macho-feminist ferocity.
The younger women on TV today owe their careers to Joan Rivers and Roseanne and don't forget Joy Behar and Rosie O'Donnell and the many other women who worked the clubs when it was all guys. They pushed the envelope and made it acceptable for women to be funny. They were funny and feminist. Stanley mentions Wanda Sykes and Maya Rudolph in her piece but hardly any other women of color. And also, where is Julia Louis-Dreyfus? I love The New Adventures of Old Christine that stars Dreyfus and Sykes.
It’s not that these girls are better than the girls who preceded them,” says Fran Lebowitz. “They’re luckier. They came along at a time when the boys allowed them to do this. In comedy, timing is everything.”
So glad to see we still need permission to be allowed to be funny.
At the moment, though, big-budget comedies are still a reach for most women. Comedians such as Steve Carell, Will Ferrell, and Sacha Baron Cohen are major movie stars in a way that their female counterparts are not. Looks, for them, aren’t important: pudgy Jack Black and Seth Rogen are tapped as romantic leads opposite Kate Winslet and Katherine Heigl.
Nobody knew who the hell Sacha Baron Cohen was before Borat. It seems that the films are trying to apply to the lowest common denominator (namely the young boys who are maybe too immature to understand nuanced comedy.) But the real question is, why are women allowed to be funny on TV and have to be the killjoys in films?
Poehler argues that, despite the changes in television and comedy clubs, Hollywood has made it harder than ever for comediennes to play leads in romantic film comedies. “I guess I’m not able to play the girlfriend of guys my own age anymore,” she says. “I play the bitchy older sister. And who doesn’t love the bitchy older sister who gets it in the end?” Poehler speaks wistfully of the days—20 years ago—when “Lily Tomlin and Bette Midler could open a movie, Teri Garr and Diane Keaton were movie stars and they looked like they lived in your building; you felt you could kind of know them.”
Amen, Amy.
It’s oddly cultural but not really much of a mystery: ticket sales are driven by young men (18–24), whereas television, especially network television, is more of a woman’s world. (Female viewers outnumber men by approximately 30 percent during prime time.) So it is something of a milestone that Tina Fey and Amy Poehler have teamed up to make Baby Mama, a comedy about a single career woman (Fey) who wants a child and hires a working-class surrogate (Poehler), who moves in; they then clash like The Odd Couple. In a market that favors boy-girl romantic comedies such as 27 Dresses, a female buddy picture is bold. There have not been many successful ones since Bette Midler and Shelley Long starred in Outrageous Fortune in 1987. (Thelma & Louise had its funny moments, but that final pratfall was deadly.)

Fey says she is aware of the risks. “Women drive what’s on television, and husbands and boyfriends decide on movies,” she said. “I’m doing it backwards: I have a TV show for men and a movie coming out for women.”

I am so incredibly sad that the last female buddy comedy that they could think of to mention is 20 years old. somebody please help me understand why we can be funny or star in TV shows but cannot be funny or star in films. Let's all decide to go and see Tina Fey's movie on opening weekend to support her and her work! Anyone want to come with me?