Women in Comedy: No Longer Just a Man’s Show

Traditionally comedy has been solely a male domain, and only recently the focus shifted to the role of women within the genre. The idea of “Unruly woman” has persisted through centuries, but the feminist studies tended to avoid this subject and paid more attention to melodramas and the victimization of women in other media and art forms. However, the fact of the matter is, through comedy, female characters manage to get rid of their vulnerability and transform into powerful and independent figures. Laughter serves not only as the means of empowerment, but also of self-definition and challenge to the traditional social patterns. This removal of the stereotype of the “unruly woman,” and the influx of women comics has invariably aided women’s self-determination in life.  

The Unruly Woman

The main characteristics of the unruly woman include non-conformism, incorporation of traditionally male behaviors and humor, and open sexuality. This type of woman is not a lady; she openly uses toilet and blue humor, defies the societal norms and challenges authority. Such characters in movies have often been used as objects of laughter while society views their behavior as unacceptable and exceptional. However, the unruly woman can also be a subject of laughter, this way instituting her right to be the central character of the film. Despite her obnoxious behavior and lack of societal approval, through comedy she ruins the stereotypical approaches to female depiction in movies. The unruly woman does not succumb to the female tropes such as victimization, self-sacrifice, waiting or suffering. 


Kathleen Rowe, in her writing, mentions Mary Douglas's idea of purity and danger that describes “women’s cultural politics as having traditionally included strategies of purity ( ie. radical negation, silence, withdrawal, and invisibility) and danger (ie. female performance, imposture, and masquerade)”. Since the time immemorial, women remained in the invisible private sector, while men maintained their reputation of public figures. This division of visibility transferred to media where women tended to be objects, rather than subjects of the film. The common tropes were victimization, in which women played a role of a passive object that is saved, and the male gaze, where women were depicted as the erotic objects of the male desire rather than active characters. This problem still exists despite the implementation of the Bechdel Test that introduced to facilitate the study of the female representation in cinema. 

Examples in Cinema

In the opening of the movie Spy the character of Melissa McCarthy – Susan Cooper – embodies the problem of female invisibility and discrimination in the workplace. Her role is limited to assisting a more successful male character Bradley Fine whom she secretly loves. She is figuratively invisible most of the time at work; she is just a voice that guides Bradley during the field missions. When Bradley gets into trouble, and she tries to propose her candidacy for the position of a field agent, but her chef does not seem to notice her. Susan cannot boast of a perfect body; therefore, the male gaze is not applicable to her which drags her further in the background. Even though she managed to get a field trip, it was not due to her self-definition, but due to her love to another male character. 

The interesting fact is that most feminist film critics referred to melodramas rather than comedies in their analyses. The idea of a female comedian has never been a taboo; it was simply ignored by the critics who, in their search for a female empowerment in modern media forgot about laughter as a potent means of self-expression and self-analysis. Kathleen Rowe claims that “…the conventions of both popular culture and high art represent women as objects rather than subjects of laughter.”. Therefore, by becoming the subjects of laughter female characters express themselves and institute the position of power. Additionally, this helps them not just follow the storyline set by a male character, but create their  path. Laughter enables a female character to take hold of the situation and understand her internal motivation. 

Through laughter a woman denies her vulnerability and transforms into a powerful character that can deal with hardship and not simply wait for a certain male figure to come save her. Rowe further affirms this statement claiming that laughter  “…contains both life and death, enacting the destruction that necessarily precedes the birth of a new order and creating the solidarity on which such order must be built” and is “a powerful means of self-definition and a weapon for feminist appropriation”. The new order that comes after has a woman-affirming a central role in her fate and fostering the unity with other female characters. 

In Spy, Susan Cooper gradually transforms from a loving girl seeking revenge for the death of her loved one to a smart and independent agent that does not need advice or orders from the outside. A traditional macho type, Ford, is horrified by this change; she challenged his authority and disputed the old order. However, Susan,  despite being funny and sometimes clumsy in her new role appropriates the feminist features that serve her well throughout the movie saving not only her life but Ford's life as well. 

The old order placed women in the background either as a muse for a man or as an invisible servant. The foreground belonged to men who in their desire to maintain their central position in all spheres of life had to make a spectacle of themselves for the public eye. The need to display power originated in ancient Greece when men created history while women remained attached to the private sector. Later in the medieval times people realized the importance of spectacle by adorning their clothes to mark their power. However, with the adoption of Enlightenment ideas, the garment flamboyance lost its significance as the representation of authority, and turned into a female hobby. As Kathleen Rowe argues “In a postmodern culture of the image and the simulacra, power also lies in possession and control of the visible,” meaning that visibility does not necessarily entail power, rather the control over it. In the same vein, the male gaze is the control of the female visibility that in modern times is more important than the visibility itself. 

The choice of Melissa McCarthy as the main character for the movie Spy was a challenge to the traditional Bond girl type that represents femininity and danger for the gullible male characters. The director does not focus on the contours of her body or her influence over the male characters, but on her actions and character development. Therefore, Susan assumes a central role in the movie not by being visible, but by being active and subjective. Her subjectivity and imperfection make her look human and engaging for the viewer. She is not just there for a male gaze; she is there to come out of shade and develop into a full-fledged independent character. Susan destroys her workplace traditions and challenges their stereotypes by coping with the tasks that nobody believed she could tackle. 

Comedy, thereby, can be viewed as a means of disruption a traditional social hierarchy. According to Ruby Rich comedy should be valorized for “… its revolutionary potential as a deflator of the patriarchal order and an extraordinary level and reinventor of dramatic structure.”  Withdrawal from the social involvement and passivity has been traditionally characteristic of a “pure” woman according to traditional dogma within Christianity. Therefore, when female characters deny their fixed roles by bursting out in laughter, this is viewed as demonic and threatening to the male dominated world. This grotesque act dispels the ennui of a conservative male-dominated comedy genre. 

Comedy’s Liberation

Laughter transitions attention from the female vulnerability to their ability to resist the circumstances. Rowe notes that for many women “Social contradictions of gender have been played out most compellingly in artistic forms centered on their victimization and tears rather than on their resistance and laughter.”  Resistance, therefore, entails certain actions that turn women into subjects of the film.  Usually, this transition is accompanied by deflation of women's ideas of social norms and structure. The hierarchy levels out and the illusions disperse. The tropes of femininity such as waiting, suffering, and self-sacrifice are to be made to appear “fantastic, literally incredible” according to Mary Ann Doane. Female comedy actresses like Mellisa McCarthy show how impossible the traditional role of a woman is. 

In the movie Tammy Melissa McCarthy, from the first sight, plays an unfortunate woman who was fired from job and found out that her boyfriend cheated on her. From the other side, however, she plays a woman that denies the necessity of the male environment for her happiness. The whole movie revolves around women's interactions, and men in this case serve as a background for the female character development. Tammy's character shows how impossible the traditional societal norms are to adhere for a woman. She was once a silent employee and a faithful lover, but this fragile world broke down one day and left her lost, confused and marginalized. Tammy, however, laughs at circumstances, thereby empowering herself from within and transforming into a Medusan character. She becomes even further marginalized after robbing the bank and blowing up the car that could serve as evidence. In her search for her life anchor, she later realizes that she should have this anchor inside and not hold onto any outside factors. This movie is a masquerade of an amusing and grotesque woman in the search of self-identity. At the end, the traditional woman who clings onto an invisibility as a fast food worker and dependency as somebody's lover turns into an independent and powerful character who is ready to take responsibility for her actions. 

Nonetheless, this carnivalesque switch is not possible without a woman first assuming the traditional patriarchal model. Kathleen Rowe believes that women “must learn the languages they inherit with their inescapable contradictions before transforming and redirecting them toward their personal ends.”. This transformation inevitably leads to masquerade that is characterized by the challenge to authority from the bottom-up entailing certain types of attitudes and humor. This type of irony does not presuppose superiority, rather an attempt to mimic the features of the “ruling” sex by proving them to be non-exceptional and accessible to everyone. 

Despite the fact that the male features are depicted as universal and accessible by female comedians, still there is an aura of monstrosity around it. This can be attributed to the traditional myth about Medusa, a once beautiful lady that turned into an evil monster. Men cannot look at Medusa; otherwise, they will die. They fear it because they do not know if they are going to come to life after crossing eyes with the monster. In the Medusan film a female character that dares to laugh and thereby assume the position of power is viewed as a monster and a threat by male characters. Medusa is not nice; she offends and defends her right to rule her life. Male characters only see a distorted reflection of Medusa on their shield; therefore, it is difficult for them to judge her. However, if they are brave enough to look at her, their old self will die to incorporate new ideas. Nonetheless, it takes time for male characters in the film to find inner strength to examine a Medusa; most of them just avoid her like a plague or an ignominious monstrosity. 

The End of a Stereotype 

This transgression leads to a deconstruction of a traditional gender model. A female character is supposed to be detached and silent; however, in the new comedy she is angry and boisterous, laughing at the societal norms and challenging the traditional order. The change is viewed as monstrosity or even insanity by the society. Nonetheless, female characters this way manage to get rid of their inner invisible monsters that are imposed on them by the said society. Julia Lesage believes that “all of women’s depression – all our compulsive smiling, ego-tending, and sacrifice” remains unspoken Through this transition a female character manages to speak out the tabooed topics and resist them through laughter. 

In the movie Identity Thief, the main character played by Melissa McCarthy, Diana is a typical Medusan character. She scares the reasonable clerk Sandy Patterson and his family as a monster coming to ruin their lives. However, as Sandy turns his eyes away from the protective shield and observes a vulnerable human being behind the façade of impertinence and imposture, he stops thinking of Diana as a monster coming to steal his life. Sandy reconsiders his views on Diana, and as a proof that he’s changed, he decides not to turn her in to the police. However, Diana in her turn did not stay the same and assumed responsibility for her life by going to police herself. During the movie she invokes laughter as well as bewilderment; she is carefree in her attitude to life and people, her behavior is immoral and offensive towards others, and people find her repulsive. However, this is because they only looked at her through the distorted reflection of their superficial judgment. In any case, the Medusan character is never deadly, although perplexing and sometimes terrifying. 

Therefore, the concept of “unruly woman” has long stopped being a simple comedy trick, but turned into a powerful means of self-expression and self-definition for female film characters. Through laughter women in movies manage to assume power and establish control over their lives avoiding the traditional tropes of victimization and male gaze. They become the active subjects of the film overcoming hardship by appropriating the traditionally male behavior and attitudes. Such Medusan comedies are also characterized by the male character’s apprehension and demonization of a female transformation. Nonetheless, actresses such as Melissa McCarthy have proven the sustainability and growing popularity of a new female comedian image among the overall audience.


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