Saturday, September 17, 2011

Women (still) aren't funny

Nothing bothers me more than hearing someone claim that women aren’t funny. It’s an opinion that is thrown around as though it were a well-known fact of life. Even comic greats like John Belushi, Chevy Chase, and Jerry Lewis have said women aren’t funny. The “women aren’t funny” argument seems to persist as an acceptable vehicle for sexism, and women still struggle for respect in the comedy world. So why exactly is it that in 2011 women are still seen as unable to compete with men in comedy?

Taking a look back, women have been in comedic roles for the better part of the 20th century (Lucille Ball, Betty White, Joan Rivers, Lily Tomlin), but they still don’t get the respect they deserve, either on the streets or at the comedy clubs. In May 2011, Rosanne Barr wrote a scathing article for New York Magazine which details how her sitcom Roseanne (the first female-created sitcom) was hijacked by ABC, which essentially refused to name her in the credits as the show’s creator. Instead, the credits ran: “Created by Matt Williams.” What’s more, she reports how women were pitted against each other to fight for raises and were rarely promoted to writer, how an all-male team of writers created lines that were “what women would say,” and how when Rosanne climbed to the No. 1 spot in 1988 she was sent a chocolate in the shape of a #1, whereas male stars of No. 1 shows were typically sent new Porsches. But that was the 80s, right?

Sadly, Barr’s article dovetails with Tina Fey’s experience as a woman in comedy in the 90s and 2000s. In her recent (and very funny) autobiography, Bossypants. Fey recalls how in 1994, while with the improv troupe Second City in Chicago, she and Amy Poehler were not allowed to be on stage alone together - since a skit without a man wouldn’t go over well with audiences, and there wouldn’t be enough “material.” They had rules that there were never to be more women on stage than men in a given skit - the exact ratio required was typically 4 men to 2 women. Years later in 2004, Saturday Night Live’s popular segment “Weekend Update” was co-anchored by two women (Fey and Poehler!) for the first time. While Fey’s writing for Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock (her own show on NBC) has received countless awards (including Emmys and Golden Globes), Bossypants reveals that the road to such success was one ridden with sexism and prejudice. Today, Fey and Poehler are nearly alone at the top as women in comedy.

Most recently, attention on women in comedy was revamped by the popularity of the movie Bridesmaids. Starring Kristen Wiig, another female SNL comedian, Bridesmaids is one of the best-reviewed comedies of the past several years, yet its praise is always cognizant of the largely female cast; most reviews seem to note their surprise with how funny women can be (who would’ve thought?!). Bridesmaids has grossed over $168 million, yet it is near the top of the list of top grossing movies never to make it to the No. 1 spot (the rest of that list is largely comprised of children’s movies). An LA Times review praised the film’s success given that, “R-rated female-centric, gal-pal entertainments don't exactly top studio wish lists.” Indeed, while Bridesmaids has been lauded as “easily the funniest movie of 2011,” it drew only a 33% male audience.

Another critic praised the film for turning the boys’ club of comedy on its head: “It is not insignificant to note that Bridesmaids, in all its outrageous, profane, bawdy glory, is largely the work of women -- written by, co-produced by, and starring a cast almost entirely made up of women. What results is not a feeling of ‘girls playing at a boys game,’ but rather the girls stealing the game and reinvigorating it with quirky energy, sharper comedic insight, and subtle depth.”

So if women have been succeeding in the big comedy business of Hollywood, why does the notion that women aren’t funny persist? One Australian comedian reported the most common reasons people gave in response to why they thought that women weren’t funny:

- Funny women only talk about relationships, vaginas, tampons, emotions, family, domesticity, personal problems, [insert 1950s idea of women’s conversational topics here].
- Funny women aren’t attractive.
- Funny women are aggressive.
- Funny women are too polite to be funny.
- Funny women lack confidence.

Another point that was frequently made was that women being crude (as comedians typically are) was unattractive and that men didn’t like seeing women in a crass role. The aforementioned list exposes how men seem to dislike women acting too much like men, and/or that in order to be funny women need to act like men. Women are placed in a double bind: when they act like men, it’s gross, but when they act like women, they’re not funny. Just like in other work environments, women are forced to toe the line between being too “manly” and being too feminine for men’s work - neither result yielding much more than unrelenting criticism or qualified compliments (“good, for a woman”).

This comes back to the sameness/difference debate: Should women be trying to convince audiences that they are just like men, or should they be promoting their own flavor of comedy? Each path presents its own problems for feminism and exposes opportunities to keep women below men in the comedy business. For if women are just like men, they need to play the game by men’s rules, a game at which they will inevitably fail. And if they brand their own style of humor, they’re relegated to the WNBA of comedy (the unpopular, “separate but equal” accommodation to feminism). And so women who do comedy play by men’s rules, and it becomes apparent that men want women as their audience, not as their rivals.

People often cite a difference in men’s and women’s senses of humor as the reason why women are perceived as less funny than men. A Stanford University School of Medicine study found that men and women share much of the same humor-response system; both use a similar part of the brain responsible for semantic knowledge and juxtaposition, as well as the part of the brain involved in language processing, but men and women interpreted what they found funny differently. But even if women and men do find different things funny, that rhetoric still goes on to conclude that women aren’t as funny as men, as opposed to concluding that men aren’t as funny as women. As in other male/female comparisons, men appear to be the yardstick by which women are measured. In turning to nurture over nature, the reasoning seems to come more into focus. As Kate Sanborn put it in her 1885 book, The Wit of Women, “What woman does not risk being called sarcastic and hateful if she throws the merry dart or engages in a little sharp-shooting. No, no, it’s dangerous—if not fatal.” Perhaps even today men feel threatened by funny women.

As with other arenas where women attempt to enter a man’s domain, a disproportionate amount of attention is placed on looks and attractiveness. As a Vanity Fair article very candidly confessed, “[My] argument doesn't say that there are no decent women comedians…Most of them, though, when you come to review the situation, are hefty or dykey or Jewish, or some combo of the three.” A response to the piece noted how in the past women were simply not funny, then women couldn’t be funny if they were pretty, and now female comedians need to be pretty - even sexy - to succeed. Indeed, Tina Fey was put on camera only after losing 30 lbs, while male comedians like Chris Farley, Jack Black, and Seth Rogan don’t seem to be losing any work because of their weight.

While women in comedy continue to endure particularly harsh critiques simply because they are women trying to make it in the old boys’ club of comedy, funny is becoming closer to the norm for women these days. But then again, women are more prevalent in everything these days. Unfortunately, the trend is showing that women in comedy must increasing rely on sex appeal to get ahead, lest we forget that the entertainment industry is still controlled by men. Fortunately, it also seems as though women are more inclined to ignore the claims that they aren’t funny and to allow their success to speak for itself. In the end, I anticipate that it will be these women who will have the last laugh. In the meantime, it looks like women in comedy will continue to work overtime to overcome prevalent sexism, and this is no laughing matter.


KayZee said...

I remember reading somewhere the point you made about Tina Fey having to fight to get on camera. She was a writer for "SNL" and she wasn't "allowed" to be on camera because of her appearance. Once they did put her on camera, she was wildly successful on the Weekend Update. She continued to succeed on "SNL," killing it as a perfect Sarah Palin impersonator, and then on to her own prime-time sitcom. "30 Rock" isn't only popular, it was also picked as the Emmy's Outstanding Comedy Series from years 2007 until 2009. Tina writes and stars in the series. And yet, how can people still argue that women aren't funny?

It reminds me of another popular show, starring a female comedian, from the 1990s. It ran for 5 solid years and received great reviews...until, the main character came out on the show. From that point, the show's ratings declined (not to mention, ABC was required to put a "parental advisory" at the beginning of each episode). Yet, 15 years later, she is back on the air with one of the most popular daytime talk shows on television.

I agree with your comment, AMA, that it appears that female comedians are stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to figuring out how to act. Are they to joke like men or women? Maybe it's more a question of timing. How long must they wait, until their brilliance and talent is finally 1) acknowledged and 2) "allowed."

Caitlin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Caitlin said...

watched the stars of Bridesmaids making the usual tour of morning shows and talk shows. What struck me during this tour was how Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph had to repeatedly assure viewers that this was "something different" than a normal "chick flick" in that it was a comedy that not only women could appreciate.

Reviewer and show host alike repeatedly remarked that he or she was pleasantly surprised about how fresh the writing was. And yet, wasn't this movie pretty similar to Judd Apatow movies of the past decade or so? The only difference is that women wrote and starred in it. While this movie is something different because of who wrote it and its focus on women instead of men, I found it kind of insulting that the press angle of the film was something akin to creating hype because the movie was so different, when in fact it was fantastic because its humor was so close to many films that have already been made. Double standard?

Great post!

Megan said...

A 2006 study on this topic revealed that men are not as attracted to funny women, even though they purport to prefer a partner with a good sense of humor. The study explained this phenomenon by distinguishing between humor productivity and humor receptivity. Apparently, men perceive female sense of humor as a measure of how receptive a woman is to their own humor. Females, on the other hand, value both giving laughter and receiving it.

This post goes beyond intimate relationships and discusses assumptions and stereotypes which feed a continuing societal hesitance to value female comedic production. Many of these typecasts were born out of tradition and historical male dominance. Males historically have valued female attractiveness over her intelligence, and (as the 2006 study showed) it is not that attractive to be funny. Just look at the history of female singers, dancers, and actors, whose presence in show business has been far less controversial. Significantly, these roles draw attention to a woman's attractiveness whereas the role as a comedian is an obvious display of wit and ingenuity. Ann Beatts, comedy writer, explains female "humor" in the 1950's: "Real girls weren't funny. Real girls were pretty and fluffy and could do the splits in cheerleader tryouts. Real girls didn't crack jokes. Did you ever hear Sandra Dee crack a joke? Annette Funicello didn't even laugh; she just put her hands on her hips and got mad at Ricky or Tommy or Eddie or whoever was carrying her surfboard so that they could tell how cute she was when she was made."

Today, I think the tide is turning and although I think there are many hurdles that still exist for any female comedian, I want to believe that those hurdles are getting smaller and smaller. And thank goodness for that because we need female comedians. Indeed, a woman who can make a crowd laugh is a powerful woman in my eyes.

Brown Eyed Girl said...

Great post. Reading this post, I was instantly reminded of the Roast of Charlie Sheen on Comedy Central. Airing this past week, I noticed that the female comedians were noticeably outnumbered. Only two of the eight roasters were women. And one of the women was Kate Walsh, a well-known actress rather than comedian. Both women held their own in the fraternal, testosterone-filled event. But neither received much attention for their performance. In fact, USA Today didn't even mention them in their review. [1]

I do agree that women are unfairly forced to compete with male comedians. But when they meet this challenge, they are rejected for acting "too male." Despite Tina Fey's struggles to find air time, I would be interested whether her predecessors faced the same struggles. Lucille Ball, one of my favorite female comedians, headed one a successful T.V. show before making several films. Yet, despite her success and others who have followed, Hollywood continues to be wary of funny women.


Ringo1985 said...

The idea that "women still aren't funny" shows that women are constantly evaluated from a different standpoint than men, even by other women. One can go through an array of individual comics and movies to see how women find it difficult to break through the culture barrier that views men as "funny" and women as "not." The treatment of male comedians compared to their female counterparts, as well as female comedians who have succeeded in Hollywood, are testimony to the premium Hollywood places on male comics and male-centered jokes.

Regardless of what one thinks about Rosie O'Donnell or her comedic ability, the remarks Donald Trump made about her body image were horrific, calling her "fat" and other condescending names. Though O'Donnell and Trump were in a heated debate, I can't recall anyone referring to other overweight male comics, such as Chris Farley, John Candy, or Jim Belushi, in the manner that Rosie O'Donnell has been treated...

In a similar vein, many female comics have not reached true stardom in the same sense that their male counterparts have. Oftentimes, it takes an appeal to a certain obscene sense of humor (that obviously male AND females find funny) to catapult a female as "funny" in a comedy. For example, lots of men and women liked "Knocked Up" (and as a consequence found Katherine Heigel funny.) But to what extent was this comedic value an appeal to the male audience at the expense of females? I'm not sure. Personally, I was offended by the vagina shot, and I can't help but think this was in some way to satiate the male audience's raunchy humor. Though I found the movie funny myself, I couldn't help but wonder how not funny Katherine Heigel was....The vulgar script and pregnancy jokes compensated for her lack of comedic ability, but I think this may have been a sell out for a real comedy.

Girl Talk said...

I love this post. A little less than a year ago, I had a discussion with my boyfriend about how women are considered inferior in the comedy world. We decided to do some digging and find out if there was any truth to women being "unfunny."

Netflix streaming has (or had, at the time, when they still cared about their customers) a huge chunk of episodes of "Comedy Central Presents," which features the stand-up of a different comedian each episode. We went through and began watching the episodes that featured women comedians, and I have to say that after watching ten or fifteen, I stopped because the "women are unfunny" mantra was proven right. There was one funny woman (Maria Bamford), but on the whole, the female comedians I saw just weren't funny. I realized that those I found unfunny spent the vast majority of their bits talking about "women" issues in such a way that was unoriginal and actually degrading to women. It's almost as if they were trying to appeal to men by putting down their own sex, but trying to appeal to women by talking about periods and giving birth and how much men suck. It's like a more vulgar version of The View.

I've found a sort of parallel between feminist theory and comedy in that there is the sort of "difference" comedy and the "humanist" comedy. What I mean by this is that there are comedians, like the women I describe above, who restrict their comedy to talking about the differences between men and women. They make the same stereotypical, unoriginal observations about the sexes over and over and it's just lame (some male comedians do this too). The comedians that I do find funny (male or female) are those whose comedy appeals to everyone and leaves out sex-based commentary. This is why I love Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig, Samantha Bee, Maria Bamford, Sarah Silverman, etc. - and men love them too. I think these women are trending away from the sex-based, "difference" comedy and know how to appeal to both sexes.

While Bridesmaids drew only a 33% male audience, I think the reviews indicate that it was funny - to both men and women. Every guy that I have talked to that saw the movie found it significantly more funny than they expected, and the Bridesmaids seems to have almost revolutionized, and certainly legitimated, comedy for women.

Also, Fey's book, Bossypants, is hilarious and insightful. I have a copy if anyone in fem theory would like to borrow.

Rose Sawyer said...

According to a study published in the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, men are funnier than women -- but only by a small margin.

Researchers at UCSD had 16 men and 16 women write captions for New Yorker cartoons. They then brought in 34 men and 47 women to judge the captions' funniness in a tournament-style rating system.

Men unknowingly preferred captions written by men. In a Huffington Post article addressing the study, the writer commented on this effect as follows:

"Sad for the guys who think that by being funny they will impress the ladies, but really just impress other men who want to impress the ladies," UCSD professor and study co-author Nicholas Christenfeld said.

This made me wonder -- is it really more important for men to impress women? Or, as Mary Becker suggests in her article, Patriarchy and Inequality: Toward a Substantive Feminism, do "men use women to bond with each other through shared participation in demeaning and devaluing women"? I'd be curious to know which jokes men found so funny, and whether those jokes had antifeminist undertones.

Regardless, though, I agree with Girl Talk that humor is funniest when everyone -- men and women alike -- can relate to it. This study reinforces that conclusion.