At the Aspen Ideas Festival on July 2, onstage next to Goldie Hawn of all people, former Disney CEO Michael Eisner offered this axiom: “In the history of the motion-picture business, the number of beautiful, really beautiful women—a Lucille Ball—that are funny, is impossible to find.” His sentiment has a sadly long history. In the introduction to her book Pretty/Funny: Women Comedians and Body Politics, Linda Mizekewski writes:
In the historic binary of ‘pretty’ versus ‘funny,’ women comics, no matter what they look like, have been located in opposition to ‘pretty,’ enabling them to engage in a transgressive comedy grounded in the female body—its looks, its race and sexuality, and its relationships to ideal versions of femininity.
This is nothing new. People like Carol Burnett, Rachel Dratch, and Tina Fey have been confronting this limiting binary for decades. Has anything changed?
The answer, quite possibly, lies with Amy Schumer, a female writer and performer who has defined herself by a radical agency in her comic persona. Schumer and comediennes like her represent a new success in the uphill battle that women face in Hollywood—a battle that we can actually quantify. Stacy L. Smith, a professor of communications at the University of Southern California, has spearheaded comprehensive research into gender inequality both in front of and behind the camera. Her studies were conducted over a six-year period and investigated the 600 top-grossing films between 2007 and 2013. Comedy stands out as a genre with the highest percentage of female characters, a steady 36 percent throughout the study (The fact that 36 percent is the highest percentage for women in the study should already illuminate some glaring problems).
Behind the scenes, Smith and her team noted, the number of female and directors and writers was at an all-time low.
Forty-three percent of television producers are women, compared to only 15.9 percent in film.
Things are markedly better for women in television, in terms of both representation and progressive material. According to an employment study conducted by the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film, 43 percent of television producers for the 2013–14 primetime season were women, compared to only 15.9 percent in 2013 film, according to Smith’s study. Shows like Orange Is the New Black, Scandal (and the entire Shonda Rhimes empire), and Transparent are all thriving with women at the helm. Inside Amy Schumer and Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer’s Broad City are two of Comedy Central’s edgiest and most popular shows.
Schumer herself embodies shamelessness, a weapon historically denied to female protagonists in mainstream films. She does not lament breaking the unspoken code and she does not apologize for it. She uses her body and her sexuality as a calculated affront to the ridiculous standards women are held to. But that does not mean these standards cease to exist.
In a recent Fox News opinion piece, Kate Yoder chides the media’s love affair with Amy, complaining, "We don’t need comedy that presents women as selfish, out-of-control, and sex-obsessed.” Yoder’s imagined audience craves a protagonist who instead “exemplifies dignity” and “has morals.” Yoder’s op-ed paints a caricature of Schumer, and of her work as a whole, while ignoring elements that provide an anchor to Schumer’s recklessness—elements that serve as a reminder of the “good girl” motif Yoder so desires. Yoder further narrows the pigeonhole that women characters have been shoved into in every film I can remember.
Schumer deftly addresses sexism in many of her skits for Comedy Central, some of the most popular being “Last Fuckable Day” and “12 Angry Men.” But if you haven’t been living under a rock you know this already. Her rise to the upper echelons of comedy has been swift, impressive, and, yes, controversial. Schumer is not a role model in the traditional sense, and that’s the point. It’s a big step forward for representation, even if the most transgressive elements of Schumer’s shtick end up rather tamed at the end.
"Because the public discourses about femininity are riddled with contradictions, most revolving around polarized notions of 'good' and 'bad' women, the creation of the double is one way to achieve complexity and representations."
Trainwreck (written by Schumer; directed by Judd Apatow) breaks new ground for both female protagonists and romantic comedy as a genre, but not without reference to old ground: Standards linger, and Amy plays off them with ease. The humor works because it actively pushes against specific gender expectations. Why is it hilarious to watch Amy pass out after climaxing, with no sexual reciprocation for her partner? Why is it hilarious to watch her push guy after guy out the door? Because we’ve watched guys do it countless times, and the reversal is interesting because, despite its seemingly brazen approach, there is still a good girl waiting in the wings—to wit, Amy’s sister Kim, who is happily married with a second baby on the way. This duality, two sisters on opposite ends of the “values” spectrum, certainly offers more complexity and choice to audience members seeking representation—but is Kim’s presence empowering? Or is it a safety net for Amy’s behavior, re-assuring anxious audience members and critics like Yoder that old-fashioned femininity is still intact?
The concept of doubling the transgressive with the conformist is grounded in the history of advertising and media. In her book, Madcaps, Screwballs, and Con Women: The Female Trickster in American Culture, Lori Landay, a professor of cultural studies at the Berklee School of Music, describes an old bathing suit advertisement, featuring two women. One of them stands strong, arms crossed. Landay describes the other woman in the background: “The second drawing depicts the same ‘model’ in another bathing suit, this time from a rear view. In contrast to the larger image, the smaller woman looks coyly over her shoulder in a pose that anticipates the pinup pose of the early 1940s....” She goes on to explain, “Because the public discourses about femininity are riddled with contradictions, most revolving around polarized notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ women, the creation of the double is one way to achieve complexity in representations.”
Looking into the upcoming slate of women-driven comedies, we see this doubling trend continue. Sisters, starring Amy Poehler and Tina Fey, had the release of its first trailer a few days ago. Within the first 10 seconds, Poehler’s character is labeled the “perfect sister” and Fey “the other one,” as she screams from the sunroof of a car.
While it’s refreshing to see such characters in tandem, there seems to be a discomfort with letting these women stand alone without assigning them to different sides of the good/bad dichotomy—or letting them embody both good and bad at once.
These characters are nuanced, hilarious, and more complicated than we’ve seen before, but Mizejewski, author of Pretty/Funny, comments: "All kinds of ploys are used to make funny women ‘safe’ (most often by making them assuredly non-queer), and the good-girl foil is one of those ploys. I think we’re still far away from being 'progressive' enough that a stand-alone unruly woman comedian in a mainstream venture (that is, film or network television) can be a common phenomenon."
A recent trailer declared that Trainwreck is “not your mother’s romantic comedy.” Perhaps that’s true. What’s more exciting is that the next generation of storytellers don’t even care what your mom thinks.