This guest post by Donna K. appears as part of our theme week on The Female Gaze.
When I was taught the definitions of comedy and tragedy as an angst-y teen, I remember being struck by the way in which they were generalized. In tragedy, everyone dies. In comedy, everyone gets married. I remember thinking, “Yes, marriage IS hilarious!” But in fact, marriage was comic in the sense that everything worked out for everybody–everybody often being defined as the white male with power. Over the last decade, the male gaze has quietly been averted through a new wave of female-driven comedies. Television shows like 30 Rock, Broad City, Orange is the New Black, The Mindy Project, Inside Amy Schumer, and films like Bridesmaids and Appropriate Behavior have paved the way for comedy, specifically the role of women in it, to be re-defined: comedy is a choice. Comedy is not who will marry whom it is the choice to marry or not, to tell one’s individual story, to laugh in the face of the controlling patriarchy until there is nothing left to laugh about.
One of the hallmarks of the new class of female comedies is to subvert the “to-be-looked-at-ness” of the female form, begging an audience to gaze upon woman but then exposing the gawkers to the truths below the surface in a physical- almost biological- comedy; Julie (Julie Klausner) publically wets herself in the very first episode of the new series Difficult People; Amy Schumer’s skit “Milk Milk Lemonade” reminds audiences that the sexy booty fetishized in music videos is, in reality, “where your poop comes out”; the explosive diarrhea of food poisoning ruins the extravagant rite of wedding dress shopping in Bridesmaids. The body is no longer a Lacanian reflected ideal, it is a biological mess that often exists beyond anyone’s control. The effect of this convention is two-fold–a bait and switch of expectations but also the creation of a sense of biological sameness: man or woman, everybody poops. By placing the body in a biological space instead of a symbolic one, physical comedy is questioning the visual tendencies of subconscious desire. No longer do audiences expect to walk into a theater or turn on a TV and be greeted with a vision of feminine perfection; now they might be subjected to blood, sweat, tears, and all other kinds of bodily fluids of not just the female form but the human one. The body is an object but not one strictly made for pleasure (yet pleasure is nice too, of course).
In Broad City the character of Ilana (Ilana Glazer) sets the mood propping up mirrors, putting on make-up, prepping herself to be a vision of desire (Season 2 Ep. 8, ““Kirk Steele””). She turns on her vibrator, and some porn, and is ready for some self love: she is not here to please anyone but herself. When Danny (Chris Messina) opens the drawer of Mindy Lahiri’s (Mindy Kahling) nightstand in The Mindy Project and proclaims “Mindy has the same neck massager as Ma,” (Season 3, Ep. 8 ““Diary of a Mad Indian Woman””) not everyone might understand the implication (pssst, pharmacies sell vibrators in disguise). New female comedy isn’t presenting sex as a males want toward females; it is showing sex as a thing all genders desire, even to the point they make it happen alone. Self-love in female comedy could potentially feed into the male gaze, making him even more afraid of castration or exciting him through pleasurable moans, but what is also occurring is a normalization of female sexual pleasure. Sex and the City led the way and now movies like Appropriate Behavior (full of bi-sexuality, threesomes, and a strap on!) and Trainwreck (even if Apatow is undeniably a slut shamer!) are reminding audiences that women use their vaginas for things other than birthing and male satisfaction. These comedies are creating what Laura Mulvey calls a “new language of desire” (where the controlled and the controller are interchangeable between genders, quietly inserting the fact that this dynamic has, in actuality, always existed).
Much like the voice-over in 90s comedies that presented a personal and omniscient guide to female protagonists (Sex and the City, Mean Girls, Clueless, and Election), flashbacks are now the go-to convention used to expose the inner and past lives of women. Desiree Akhavan’s Appropriate Behavior is a flashback in its entirety, slowly showing the steps that led to the opening break-up between Shirin (Akhavan) and Maxine (Rebecca Henderson), a slow methodical break-down of motivations and personal histories. In 30 Rock, a nerdy child Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) speaks German in a short moment of memory, a happening common in the series with the young Liz sometimes played by Fey’s real life daughter. The characters of OITNB have constant, harrowing flashbacks that connect their present to a long receding past, in Sophia’s (Laverne Cox) pre-transition flashback her character is played by Cox’s real life twin brother. How can one see a character as a hollow, empty image when they are created with an entire life? A life that sometimes even edges into their fictional world? Women are not, as Mulvey says, “Freez[ing] the flow of action.” They are, and have always been, part of the action, whether recognized or not. The stories of women remain untold and the reminder that lives exist beyond their simple image, even in a fiction, is an enormous step forward in terms of making an active female figure rather than a passive one. Herstory isn’t a joke, it is a thing that roots woman in the world, it makes women makers of meaning and not strictly bearers of it.
And then come our good, old friends satire and parody! Comediennes are taking the unattainable expectations and fears of the male gaze, pointing at them and laughing as hard as possible, exposing the ridiculousness in objectification and shaming the power struggle into submission- it is almost like an S&M relationship with the status quo. When Liz Lemon does promos for her show “Dealbreakers” (Season 4 Episode 7, “Dealbreakers Talk Show,” a show that points out the faults in men that make them un-marriable: yas!), she ends up becoming so nervous about her appearance she is reduced to crying from her mouth after off-brand eye surgery. When Amy Schumer consults every possible man in her life, from doctor to mailman to boy scout, on whether she should go on birth control, it is hilarious but it is also not too far from the truth. When Annie (Kristen Wiig) wakes up early to apply make-up and return to bed before her sex friend wakes to give the illusion of flawlessness, it is a joke, and it is also, unfortunately, not a joke. Satire is a powerful way of exposing questionable societal norms, ridiculous attitudes, and insane standards; it is a socially acceptable way to challenge the patriarchy and air our grievances. If we collectively confront the male gaze through satire those in power can no longer turn a blind eye to the true absurdity that exists.
By choosing how we are looked at and creating comical stories beyond the marriage plot, we are making an enormous reclamation of our bodies and ourselves: power lies in choice. Alternative ways of seeing and being seen are created with each new story told, a visibility that is only just starting to be explored as we struggle to be better represented in mainstream media. Contemporary comedies with female leads are now ruled by countless types of desires as we are stick out our tongues at the gazing males frozen in the audience. Raising our laughter is just another form of raising our voices for change.
- Mulvey (1975). “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen, 16.3 Autumn, pp. 6-18
Donna K. is a cultural critic, film festival consultant and creative producer based in Southern Vermont. She is a member of the Women Film Critics Circle and a writer for Hammer to Nail. You can follow her musings about visual storytelling on her blog Gravity Was Everywhere Back Then.