What Does ‘Feminist Comedy’ Look Like?

TwoBrokeGirlsI attended Bowling Green State University’s Conference on Cultural and Critical Studies this weekend to give a keynote address, and I caught some thought-provoking panels along the way. The one most obviously in my wheelhouse was one on Saturday about gender and comedy, featuring papers about Two Broke Girls, Shit Girls Say, and Girls. (So many girls!) An interesting question emerged during the discussion among the three panelists: What does “feminist comedy” look like?

This question came up in response to the Two Broke Girls paper, in which scholar Nancy Bressler posits that the humor in Two Broke Girls comes off as “empowering” to women only by putting down and stereotyping the male characters. Instead, she argued that truly feminist comedy would be a more genuinely empowering alternative. Okay, so what would that be, exactly? The ten minutes or so of discussion didn’t quite allow an entire new genre of comedy to be created, but it’s an interesting idea. I’d start with Girls, which, as another scholar, Molly Weinberg, discussed in her paper, allows its female characters to be who they are — sexual, messy, awful, funny, lots of things women have traditionally not been allowed to be.

A few of my other thoughts on a more concrete kind of feminist comedy:

1. Comedy that highlights feminist issues. This is the obvious answer. Some of it exists, too. My friend Katie Goodman does a whole musical-comedy stage show in this vein.

2. Comedy that uses humor to point out the injustices of inequality. A good example of this came during Louis C.K.’s standup special last yearOh My God, wherein he did a bit on the courage that dating requires: “How do women still go out with guys, when you consider that there is no greater threat to women than men? We’re the number one threat to women! Globally and historically, we’re the number one cause of injury and mayhem to women.” A moment later he adds, speaking for all men, “You know what our number one threat is? Heart disease.” As if I didn’t love Louis C.K. enough already.

3. Comedy that sends up the very tropes used against women. This is what I think 30 Rock did best, giving us a relatable heroine who’s self-aware enough to identify as a feminist but still beat herself up for falling into more traditional traps like body-image issues and the desire for a partner. Mindy Project does this, too, most notably during the many ridiculous sex and romance scenes in which Mindy’s unrealistic expectations, stoked by romantic comedies and women’s magazines, come crashing down on her. Check out this shower sex scene for a taste. And this bit where she tries to dismantle a stripper pole at a frat party is about as explicitly feminist as you can get.

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