As someone who has recently seen Bridesmaids, and thoroughly enjoyed it, and as someone who is a self-described feminist, I am happy for its success. Not only is it funny and well-made, it’s funny with a cast of women in leading roles, and written by women. If you’ve read anything about Bridesmaids, you’re probably already aware of its (unwitting?) role as a trailblazing film for women who are funny. It’s funny like a Judd Apatow film, but with the lady folk. In case you’re not sure what that means, it’s meant as a compliment. No longer will extended adolescence and fart jokes be the realm of men only! Women can do this too! And well. Which makes me wonder what this says, not about Kristen Wiig or Annie Mumolo (writers of Bridesmaids) or of Bridesmaids itself, but about the state of comedy for women.
Before I go any further, let me just say this: I loved Bridesmaids because it was funny and done well. I appreciate Bridesmaids for having an all-female cast and being written by women. I don’t expect any film to break barriers for social justice, but I do appreciate those that do, whether they intended to or not.
I’ve also recently reread a bunch of articles about the lack of women in late-night comedy (Jezebel, New York Times, Vanity Fair). With notable exceptions (Samantha Bee on The Daily Show, Wanda Sykes and Chelsea Handler with their own shows to name a few), most of the people featured (Jay Lenno, David Letterman, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, etc.) and their writing staff, are men. As a woman who watches The Daily Show and The Colbert Report regularly and laughs out loud on a regular basis, I’m not complaining about the content. But as a woman who is aware of the inequality for women and men in the workplace, I’d prefer if women were better represented. As may of the articles noted, very few women apply for these jobs, so there is already a barrier to equity. As some of the articles pointed out, this isn’t wholly because women aren’t as apt to apply (though that is a lot of it). It’s also because writers recommend other writer friends – often men (and white men at that).
I’d like to think that we are at least at a point where we can safely assume that women are as funny as men. I’d bet if you asked all of your friends if they think this is true, they’d all (ok maybe not all, but most) would say yes. We are, after all, living in an age of Sarah Silverman, Wanda Sykes, Ellen Degeneres, Amy Poehler and so many others. Nor are these women the first class to do so. Before Tina Fey there was Molly Shannon, and before her Gilda Radner. And let’s not forget Roseanne Barr, Mary Tyler Moore, Lucille Ball, Phyllis Diller, Doris Day, and even Marilyn Monroe (see Some Like it Hot if you don’t believe me). If this list and the decades it encompasses are any indication, we have at least a familiarity with women in comedic roles. Is it just an extension of society at large that we are dealing with? There are still very few women CEOs, members of Congress, engineers. Should we expect more from comedy? Probably not. But that doesn’t excuse the lack of parity. Considering the praise that Bridesmaids has garnered so far, I’m beginning to think the current question isn’t “Can women be funny,” but rather, “Can women be funny like men?” Men are known for gross-out humor, so can women do this too? Bridesmaids says yes. Digging a little deeper, the question becomes: can women be funny in a way that makes us the antithesis of pretty and attractive? Considering the extensive history women have endured with regard to our bodies and looks, this is a loaded question, and leads to its own discussion. Still, Bridesmaids seems to suggest yes, yes we can. Yes, in fact, we sure as hell can. And, why the hell not?
Now, the cast of Bridesmaids is comprised largely of women who would be considered attractive in any film. That said, they still did things (you know what I’m talking about if you’ve seen the movie) that do not make them look pretty. In fact, they do things that are the very definition of disgusting. I don’t know how I feel about this being the next barrier for women to have to break down, if in fact that is the case, but at least, since it’s comedy, we can laugh along the way.
Who knows, maybe this brings us one step closer to a parity where men are doing comedy about a traditionally female realm. Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler desperately trying to get married before they’re considered spinsters? An ambitious Jason Schwartzman trying to balance work and family? Or maybe Zach Galifianakis trying to break into the female-dominated world of teaching/daycare/social work/nursing/take your pick. Why not have gender-bending comedy that’s also socially enlightened? That could damn funny. Even as funny as Bridesmaids.
Of course, we want to avoid a vacant, slapstick show of some guy getting grossed out by diapers only to find his way via musical montage to his softer side that’s still cool. So, how to incorporate a working knowledge of gender issues into writing that is equally smart and funny? Kids in the Hall is a great place to start. Check out this blog for a list of some brilliant examples. Another answer is to hire more women writers. And directors, for that matter.
Since this is a post about comedy, I’d like to leave you with a little bit o’ funny women, in leading roles, albeit on television. I give you: The Golden Girls.