The rise of the woman on SNL: Humor and the Feminine

This week I found myself perusing Yahoo’s list of the “100 Funniest Movies that To See Before You Die,” and I was somewhat surprised to realize that I had seen quite a large number of the films on this list. I shared this list with a friend, with whom I had recently been engaged in a conversation about the virtues of the Ben Stiller film, Zoolander, which parodies the life of male models (Does anyone else know what I’m referring to when I mention Blue Steel? Or say, “Merman!” vehemently?) and which happens to be one of my favorite comedies (my siblings and I used to be able to quote much of the movie from memory). Upon seeing the list, my friend remarked that she had only ever seen three or four of the movies on that list, a fact which for some reason made me feel a little sheepish. As we talked, I found myself admitting that maybe I was a girl who found “boy humor” really funny.

As I’ve been thinking about that conversation, I wondered why it is that for some reason, silly, laugh out loud comedy is somehow equivalent to “boy humor,” even in my own mind. In fact, the past few years have seen a massive rise of successful and highly visible turns for women in the comedy field. There’s Tina Fey, who won over the country with her Sarah Palin impressions on Saturday Night Live and won Emmys for both her writing and acting on the crazily smart “30 Rock.” There’s Kristen Wiig, who, in my opinion, has been the brightest spot in the Saturday Night Live line-up for the past two years, and who finally brought us the equivalent of a Judd Apatow flick written by, for and about women with last year’s Bridesmaids. There’s Amy Poehler, another SNL alum who followed up several movie outings with the solidly funny sitcom “Parks and Recreation.” And the list of the funny females who have buoyed SNL over the course of the past five years could go on: Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch (who just recorded a great “Not My Job” segment on NPR’s hilarious news quiz show, Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me), Jenny Slate (although her SNL run was short-lived, if you haven’t checked it out, you should definitely watch “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On”), etc. This is not just your father’s SNL cast anymore.

But still, the stigma against women as unfunny seems to persist. In 2001, infamous (and now recently deceased) journalist Christopher Hitchens raised the ire of women around the world with his Vanity Fair article entitled, “Why Women Aren’t Funny.” Hitchens suggests that humor is basically a form of bait that men use both to highlight their intelligence and to lure women. According to Hitchens, since women are the objects to be lured and not those interested in attracting a potential mate, cultivating humor is a moot point. Hitchens even goes so far as to suggest that there are some great female comedians, but most of them are, “…hefty or dykey or Jewish, or some combination of the three.”

This article was clearly insulting, and a hoarde of critics soon rose in backlash against Hitchens’ troubling argument, but it is clear that, today, these same stereotypes still exist, despite visible evidence that might suggest otherwise. In a more thoughtful piece for the LA Times last December, columnist Megan Daum suggests that it is true that there are not as many funny women in the public sphere as there are men. But this is partly because women have been complicit in our own oppression in the realm of comedy. Daum suggests that in many ways, to be funny goes against the ways that women are culturally trained to be feminine. To be funny requires being willing to sacrifice attractiveness for laughs at one time or another, and to illustrate our intelligence and willingness to claim that inherent power that lies within humor. As Daum writes, “It’s common, after all, for women to value personality over looks when it comes to men. But being a funny woman means valuing personality over looks when it comes to oneself. And that takes balls.”  

So, given all this, what can we make of the rise of the woman over the past five years of SNL history? Is this a giant step forward for women, or are we simply finding new ways to be stereotypical within the realm of entertainment? For years, we have witnessed comedians of color on SNL slide into one after another role that plays on typical offensive stereotypes about race in order to garner laughs. Are we simply repeating these patterns or is something new unfolding here? And why, after years of convulsing in laughter while watching movies like Zoolander, Bridesmaids and Blades of Glory do I still feel the need to hide my affinity for stupid humor or to couch it in a “tomboy identity”?



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7 responses to “The rise of the woman on SNL: Humor and the Feminine

  1. Judy

    Marcel is hilarious!

  2. Caroline

    This post made my day–so many things I love! Thought provoking, too. Maya Rudolph spoke briefly to the question of “girl-humor” vs. “boy-humor” in her interview for Fresh Air on NPR.

  3. Caroline

    Also, Marcel 2 is one of the few sequels I like better than the original 🙂

  4. Great reflection! As for our conversation, I actually felt sheepish about not enjoying “funny” movies. You raise a few excellent questions: are things changing for (funny) women or are they simply folding into male norms? I think it’s a bit of both. (Oh and I do enjoy Tina Fey and 30 Rock, so maybe I’ll give Zoolander a try).

    • Hannah Heinzekehr

      Well, Tina Fey and 30 Rock do, I must say, have a level of intelligence and nuance that Zoolander does not quite achieve….but it’s still funny!!

  5. Pingback: The Five-Year Engagement: Just Love and Compromise | The Femonite: Musings from a Mennonite Feminist

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