Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Persistent Myth of "Women Aren't Funny"

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In 1985, cartoonist Alison Bechdel and her friend Liz Wallace decided to come up with a way of examining movies for gender bias. No small feat. The test they came up with posed three questions: Does a movie contain two or more characters who have names? Do those characters talk to each other? And, if so, do they discuss something other than a man? Most movie-goers - of both genders - would not expect movies like "The Expendables" or "The Fast and the Furious" to pass this exam. They don't. But would it surprise you to hear that the majority of comedies you love, also fail? 'Cause the list is long: The 40 Year Old Virgin, The Hangover, The Princess Bride, The Big Lebowski, anything with Adam Sandler. So, why are female roles in comedies lacking when there are so many funny women working in Hollywood?

According to most studio heads it's largely due to date night. Not the mediocre studio comedy of last year starring Tina Fey and Steve Carrell, but actual dates. Here is how it was laid out in The New Yorker:

Studios believe that making comedies for women flout the almighty laws of Date Night, which hold as follows - Men rule. Men decide which movie a couple will see on a given weekend, and any hint that a film involves fashion, pedicures, or female troubles is "man poison"

Both men and women can relate to Kevin James in Paul Blart: Mall Cop.....if that character is played by Tina Fey, it wouldn't work, for the same reason that men can't relate to Rene Zellweger in Bridget Jones Diary. Men just don't understand the nuances of female dynamics. "Often, the woman in the picture is in a movie just to make sure the audience knows the guy is not gay," says actress Catherine O'Hara.

Breathe, Laura. Breathe.

Why does this myth of women not being funny still persist? Is that women are just "fundamentally not funny", as the late John Belushi once said of his female counterparts (What a peach, huh?) or that those who make the movies have simply decided to see it as a cash issue and not a laughs issue? The last ten years or so have brought about some very positive changes in the narrative of women in comedy. Have these studios peeps ever watched an episode of 30 Rock? Seen Kirsten Wiig on SNL? Lifted their knuckles off of the ground long enough to hear the hundreds of female comedians that are out there pounding the pavement in comedy clubs nightly? I thought we were past the days when we let one gender decide what was funny for another.

Comedy has always been a man's world, but there were some bad-ass, ballsy (for lack of a better term) ladies who clawed their way in, who refused to believe the popular assumption that dismissed an entire gender as incapable of making people laugh. Mae West's first movie was in 1932 but before that, she went to prison on morals charges for writing, directing, and starring in a play called “Sex.” You want a bad boy, that's a bad boy. Funny women have always been around — we were just much less willing to see them.

And the great part is, once we realize that we must open our minds, there are twice as many people to laugh at.

N.B. An essay I wrote about buying my cottage will appear in the Fact and Arguments section of The Globe and Mail next Tuesday. I'll be sure to link or repost it here once it appears.


  1. Have you ever SEEN a Mae West movie? Not funny, certainly not "leper on a trampoline" funny.

  2. Sadly, I, like you, James, would probably laugh at a leper on a trampoline. At the very least, I'd chuckle.....