In recent years, Hollywood has graciously provided us with a noticeable influx in mainstream movies broadly defined as “female comedy.” While the category is still narrowly represented– certainly more “subgenre” than “genre”– more people are slowly coming around to the idea that women can be hilarious. Why are there so few of these genuinely funny films that feature females providing the comedic content? Because it’s an art that until recently, hadn’t been skillfully presented. Some of the same rules apply to both men and women when it comes to eliciting laughs, but some don’t. Before the noted rise over the last few years, very few movies featured bold and intelligent women who possessed the audacity to both exist within and challenge the standards of an art form that had been defined (and is still mostly defined) exclusively by men. The only example that I can recall is Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion (by the way, who really did invent post-its?). So let’s take a look at the art of being a funny woman and some of those who have both failed and triumphed in this attempt.
Why isn’t comedy just comedy, whether delivered by a woman or a man? Well, let’s see. Some of the most successful, quotable comedies in the last 10 years are Old School, Anchorman, Wedding Crashers, and The Hangover. These movies all focus on a duo or group of guys cracking jokes largely about women, sex, and drinking. For the most part, it’s universally funny. We laugh along with these grown men as they slut around and drink like frat boys. Vince Vaughn, Will Ferrel, and Bradley Cooper all offer up unfiltered deliveries of the most arbitrarily vulgar and inappropriate sentences they can come up with and we always chuckle. They’re assholes, but we still like them. Hell, hand an infant to Vince Vaughn and Bradley Cooper and we no longer see them as the vile humans they are. They’re just a couple of family men trying to have a little bit of fun behind the parental curtain. We don’t need to see some meaningful character arc or relationship growth. Whether there is goodness in their heart isn’t imperative to their comedic function. They’re men. And they’re damn proud. The plots are far-fetched, but the interactions and conversations aren’t far off from how I imagine male-to-male conversation to be amongst my male friends . My friends talk about these movies like they want to be these guys, and sometimes seem to live vicariously through watching them.
For the most part, women have to play this game a bit differently. Attempts at the same carefree, crass humor have been unsuccessful when the story revolves around a she-wolf pack. Take The Sweetest Thing and Bachelorette as examples. In The Sweetest Thing Cameron Diaz, Christina Applegate, and Selma Blair portray characters that aren’t far off from the boys from Old School or The Hangover. But we just don’t find them to be that funny. They objectify men, sleep around, and perform an entire song and dance about the necessary evil of making a man feel confident in his manhood. Yes, these are things women do and conversations we sometimes have, but it’s not universally the sole source of our interaction or the foundation of our friendships. Further, displayed in this frame, it seems to resemble direct emulation of the male comedic prototype which renders these characters and interactions both unreal and even more unappealing. We don’t want to be these women, so we don’t laugh. We shake our heads. Similarly, Bachelorette suffers from a complete lack of likable and relatable characters. We have a coke addict, an air-head slut, and a neurotic bitch. These women have little depth and are given absolutely zero character arc . If we can relate to any of them, we sure wouldn’t want to subject ourselves to the social judgment that would result from admitting it. And, given their selfishness and cruelness we most certainly don’t want to be their friend. They rip their “best” friend’s wedding dress in the process of mocking how fat she is for God’s sake. A wedding dress. That’s sacred ground! This movie openly boasted itself as the female version of The Hangover. And the similarities exist, but to a copycat fault.
Enter the 21st century’s saving grace within the female comedy subgenre: Bridesmaids. The spot on combination of great writing and the expertise of seasoned comedians from Saturday Night Live collides in near perfection. Bridesmaids just gets it. Let’s break down why it works. It’s equally as crass and inappropriate as some of its male featured predecessors, but in more measured and customized doses. The 15 minute opening consists of an awkward sex scene followed by an equally awkward discussion about said sex scene. This is not a song and dance scene. This is almost an exact replica of a conversation I’ve had with my friends. Sorry to break it to ya fellas, but we don’t break out into song over your penis. This scene is the perfectly observed beginning of a story about the realities of female friendship. It’s an exaggerated version of course, but that’s where it lines up with what also works for the guys, we’re just playing the game slightly differently when we cater it to women. Women are made up of a variety of so many complicated emotions. We’re sexual, we’re jealous, we’re insecure, we’re needy. All of these qualities are examined, brought to life, and made light of in a refreshing and funny way in Bridesmaids.
Kristen Wiig’s character, Annie, is put through the ringer as her life falls apart both personally and professionally. Her reactions throughout this movie are genuinely funny because they’re so real. Who hasn’t felt like chugging a bottle of wine upon finding out a friend is engaged? Who hasn’t wanted to tell off a customer? Who hasn’t wanted to get drunk and sneak into first class on an airplane? And who hasn’t wanted to totally freak out when feeling threatened by another woman who actually has her life together? These are real insecurities that women battle (and sometimes lose) every single day, and it serves as a cathartic relief when they’re presented as funny. Because then we don’t feel so damn crazy. (Unless you really do take a shit in the street in a wedding dress. That’s actually crazy.) Annie is the everyday woman, dealing with the same issues we all deal with, just humorously. She says all the things we wish we could say and does all these things we wish we could do without humiliating ourselves or losing our jobs. So, we arrive at step one in creating the successful female comedy –the relatable main character.Step two – the likable asshole. Even the Bradley Cooper or Zach Galifianakis stand-in of the female comedy has to be likable. Enter Melissa McCarthy. She’s crass, she’s rude, and she’s completely inappropriate, but we love her for it, because McCarthy perfects the art of providing the occasional glimpse of the big heart which informs, maybe in twisted ways, her every offensive reaction. As Megan in Bridesmaids, McCarthy establishes a character that has overcome bullying and completely owns the fact that she’s a little bit different. She’s brushed aside for being off-putting in her brash behavior and blunt attitude, but throughout the movie she earns the viewers’ more favorable opinion as the individual you respect for not trying to pretend to be something else.
Even when she’s at her crudest in The Heat, McCarthy’s character still retains a soft side, which balances that fine line between a funny, engaging woman and just being an asshole. Detective Mullins has a foul mouth and takes pride in her ability to bulldoze over just about anyone in her way. But director Paul Feig (also responsible for Bridesmaids) and writer Katie Dippold know that that’s not enough when you’re dealing with women. You have to add a little depth to your resident asshole or you lose believability and likability. On their second effort with the actress they also smartly realize that this is where McCarthy shines. With the screen this time more interested in her position as lead, McCarthy again perfects the balancing act of being completely inappropriate and vile, yet magnetic and engaging enough that we want to hang out with her. Which brings us to our third and final step: the sisterhood factor.Women have a deeply embedded biological need to be social, and female friendships are some of the most important relationships we have. Movies like Bridesmaids and The Heat have been so successful largely because of their portrayal of the concept of female friendship. In Bridesmaids we feel protective over Annie’s bestie status in Lillian’s life, so we root for her even when she goes off the deep end. We adore Megan when she takes the time to kick Annie’s ass back into gear, and we cheer when she and Lillian finally make up. The Heat ( as messy and ridiculous as most of the movie is) becomes wholly enjoyable as we watch Special Agent Ashburn and Detective Mullins evolve slowly from territorial competitors to the best of friends. Bullock and McCarthy have the ultimate gal pal chemistry, and women love to watch friendships that both remind us of our own and those we wish we had. So, perhaps the most important key to the female comedy is being able to see both yourself and your best friend on screen. Now if you’ll excuse me, Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy are waiting for me at happy hour.