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September 22, 2008 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]

Just For Laffs

Yes, yes, everybody knows who Tina Fey is (and not just cos she’s a Sarah Palin doppelganger), but why does the stereotype of the humourless feminist still exist, eh? Why do people still, in this day and age, think that women just aren’t quite as funny as men?

If you don’t believe me (although I have a feeling that you do), way back in January of last year, Vanity Fair published Christopher Hitchens’ startlingly myopic essay ‘Why Women Aren’t Funny’. Hitchens’ argument basically came down to his idea that in life, men are ugly and useless and obsessed with ensnaring the ladeez, and ergo they must educe a few semi-orgasmic laughs out of women in order to be able to score them. Women, on the other hand, are apparently faced with no such dilemma, and all women who somehow are funny are “hefty or dykey or Jewish”, which is to say, in Hitchens’ mind, excessively masculine. He paid the backhanded compliment that women are too smart and powerful to be funny. Sixteen months later, VF published a rebuttal, ‘Who Says Women Aren’t Funny?’, which covered the rise in popularity of a range of American female comics, including Tina Fey, Sarah Silverman, Amy Poehler and Amy Sedaris. Which is great, right, but it kept talking about how all these new comedians are, like, super-pretty, and the accompanying photo spread included photos of several comics dressed up as Roman goddesses, and in sexy dresses in the back of a limo. Can’t people talk about female comics without having so much of the discussion focus on their appearance?

But so what? Why should something which has the express purpose of entertainment and diversion, have any kind of greater meaning? My arts degree would beg to differ, although I doubt that particular piece of archival-grade acid-free paper would sway many of your opinions. Anyway, these things do matter. It’s because they’re popular. Because we consume so much of this stuff that at some level or another, it informs the way we look at the world and interact with both it and other people.

Indisputably, there is great power in being able to make people laugh. I know that my own spot of megalomania grows to dangerous levels when I’m on a roll. The Ferndale strangler aside, Shortland Street is actually quite a positive model, with its wide range of female characters with relatively full inner lives. The sassiness of its women perhaps comes from its comic aspect, which is lacking in other soaps such as Home and Away, with its scores of nubile, freakishly tanned victims. As my friend described those ladies of the Gold Coast yesterday, they usually find themselves in a bind of the ‘I married my sister’s rapist and now everyone hates me except for the gun-wielding stalker of Summer Bay who is actually my estranged half-brother and now I’ve got cancer but I don’t want to abort the baby I’m carrying so I guess I’ll die nobly’ sort.

Tangents aside, maybe one of the reasons our culture is, although improving, still not completely receptive to female comics and feminist humour is that a woman wielding that kind of direct, intimate power over us is still threatening. As long as so much of women’s cultural and social value is tied up in their appearance, self-consciousness and suspicion will plague the success of female comedians.

However, there are many, many brilliant female comedians and comic actresses out there, being outrageously successful and hilarious. Jo Randerson (Wellington writer and comic), Catherine Tate (of The Catherine Tate Show), the cast of Outrageous Fortune, Tamsin Greig (of Black Books and Green Wing fame) Michelle Gomez and the cast of Green Wing, Josie Long (quirky UK comic who visited NZ in the Comedy Festival), Sarah Haskins (you must You Tube her!), Susie Essman, Cheryl Hines (both of Curb Your Enthusiasm), Jessica Walter (Arrested Development), French and Saunders, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, I could go on and on and on. So go on then. Can’t you take a joke?


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