The Never-Ending Debate Over Women in Comedy

By Vivian Obarski

It’s a tale as old as time and as persistent as a toddler’s whine. From Baby Mama to Bridesmaids to Sisters to the recently-released Ghostbusters, critics focus on one question:

Are women funny?  

This question often turns into a different variation — What’s it like being a female comedian? How does it feel to be breaking new ground? What do you think of the line ‘Women aren’t funny’?

This isn’t a new question, no matter how hard entertainment journalists try to spin it as something fresh and new. In an incomplete, all-too-brief examination of that argument by Gabrielle Moss for Bitch Magazine, she found written evidence of this argument stretching back to 1695:

Playwright William Congreve noted in his treatise, Concerning Humor in Comedy, “I must confess I have never made an Observation of what I Apprehend to be true Humour in Women…Perhaps Passions are too powerful in that Sex to let Humour have its course; or maybe by reason of their Natural Coldness, Humour cannot Exert itself to that extravagant Degree, which is does in the Male Sex.” Congreve was also the mind behind the popular quote, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” which just goes to show that it was easy to make a career out of generalizing about women even before the advent of Fox News.

But even old-timey comedy is rife with women considered funny, including Carol Burnett, Moms Mabley, Gilda Radner, Madeline Kahn, Mae West and Lucille Ball. So why does this question keep coming up like an earworm that refuses to die?

Some of the concern about whether women can be funny can be from the lack of representation. Since 1980, major American film companies have produced nearly 8,500 movies.

However, out of these American-made movies, since only 24 fulfilled the following criteria, according to my research — the Obarski test (a more intense version of the Bechdel rule):

  1. Consist of three or more women;
  2. Not a romantic comedy; and
  3. Would have a rough equivalent in a male comedy (for example 9-to-5’s male equivalent would be Horrible Bosses or Office Space).

These movies include Pitch Perfect, Bridesmaids, 9-to-5, Sister Act, A League of Their Own, First Wives Club and Hocus Pocus. Dramedies such as Steel Magnolias and Fried Green Tomatoes were also included in an attempt to be as generous as possible in criteria and still only 24 movies filled those three rules.

That’s less than a half percent of all the movies made during that time. And according to IMDB, out of the 50 top grossing comedies of all time, only three feature women in a leading role — Bridesmaids, Sister Act and The Devil Wears Prada.

The number of funny women movies following the Obarski test gets more depressing when we throw in the criteria of having women of color in the roles.

It’s already been well documented the lack of diversity in films today. Studies have shown at  studies that showed that more diverse movies make more money internationally and stateside. While those studies may have gathered dust in the past, but social media helped spread the word to a larger audience. Hashtags such as April Reign’s #OscarssoWhite were picked up by news outlets, until the call for diversity couldn’t be ignored.

The #OscarssoWhite hashtag helped create change where the Motion Picture Academy changed its member rules to increase diversity. The new academy members for 2016 were 41 percent people of color and 46 percent female — which changes the picture of the Academy as too old, too male and too white.

So in this case, the discussion of diversity is valuable because it created change within the film industry.

It’s also an interesting marketing tool to keep a movie in the forefront by touting the fact that the main characters aren’t the usual all-white, all-boy comedy. In a town where any news is good news, the recent trolling of the Ghostbusters reboot isn’t greeted with anger, but joy.

Sony movie chief Tom Rothman called the trolling “the greatest thing that ever happened,” in an interview with the Hollywood reporter. “Are you kidding me? We’re in the national debate, thank you. Can we please get some more haters to say stupid things?”

While it’s gross to hear a movie executive basically say that people hate-watching something is great for business, that’s something that’s been unsaid up until Batman vs Superman as critics tried to explain how a widely panned movie made $424 million the first week, only to have that cash flow trickle to $51 million the next. Cynical, but when has Hollywood ever been optimistic and hopeful behind the scenes?

So there are plenty of reasons for the discussion of diversity in Hollywood. But on the other hand, when that’s the only question offered to comedians, it gets dull.

Maya Rudolph, in an interview with The Guardian promoting Sisters, said she’s been fielding the same questions for over a decade:

As we finish our coffees, and I launch on to a new line of inquiry about comedy, specifically women in comedy, something shifts in Rudolph. She doesn’t cloak herself in Beyoncé, exactly, but when she answers my questions about Bridesmaids and the impact it’s had on female-fronted movies, or when we speak about Fey and Wiig and their influence, there’s a definite uptick in her adopted voices, in the extravagance of her gestures – a sure sign of Rudolph’s discomfort.

Because it’s just these sorts of questions that she and her gang have been fielding for a decade now. Ever since they found their groove on SNL, they’ve been quizzed and prodded about the one thing that interests them the least – their gender. “And the headlines are always, like, ‘Comedy’s not a boys’ club any more!’” Rudolph rolls her eyes. “Good fucking God, enough.”

The problem is that these questions aren’t new. The answers aren’t new. The questions also fail to probe deeper into the movies produced, calling movies with white women leading revolutionary when there are few comedies featuring women of color — excepting the two Saturday Night Live-ers Maya Rudolph and Leslie Jones. It’s a faux-deepness that addresses the diversity issue, but only superficially.

These questions also feel sexist because neither Will Ferrell nor Mark Wahlberg had to field inquiries about whether or not they fought on set, unlike Tina Fey and Amy Poehler during the press junket for Sisters.

A strange paradox is created — by wanting to highlight the need for diversity, these interviews become reductive and focused not on humor, but on gender, making these women in comedy the exception, as opposed to the norm.

Ultimately the question of women in comedy is a moldy old chestnut that should’ve been thrown out ages ago. Until funny ladies are treated as the norm and not the exception, we’ll be subjected to the same questions and answers.

The only positive of these sexist questions? Reactions like this:


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