Tina Fey; ‘Funny Girl’ or butt of the joke?

Jack Slater

Tina Fey; ‘Funny Girl’ or butt of the joke?

If someone was to try and put forward the argument that today, in 2012, sexism and prejudice based on gender are a thing of the past, they wouldn’t face much opposition. Today, in Western societies, we pride ourselves on progressive attitudes towards most things. Of course, there will never be a unanimous tolerance, but society in general has adopted a liberal stance on many things considered wayward in the past, such as women earning money whilst men stay home, there being a marriage where both halves share the same genitals, and the first black President in history. However, what remains a very wayward concept is one that predetermines a woman’s capability of being funny and, as a loose offshoot to this, women who are in control, as both unnecessary and unimaginable. Whether explicitly confining women to a sex devoid of humour or inferring – as can be seen by the reactions to the success of the 2011 female-driven comedic blockbuster Bridesmaids, to give one example – that women can be funny, is a notion that not everybody finds amusing. One woman who is prominent in comedy is Tina Fey. Fey was the first female head writer for the television landmark Saturday Night Live and  is now creator and head writer for the critically acclaimed show 30 Rock. Not only is she heralded as a leading comic of today, she also directly addresses the problems posed to women in comedy, and women who are ‘the boss’, like herself.

Though humour is indubitably a subjective concept, women have often been told outright that it is impossible for their gender to be considered funny. Not ‘funny to’ or ‘funny at’, there are many who think that women are categorically unfunny, including Christopher Hitchens. However tawdry it may seem to speak ill of the dead, Hitchens was known for bigoted opinions, such as his view that women are not funny because humour is simply not a quality of theirs that men are interested by. Writing in his article for popular magazine Vanity Fair, Hitchens wrote about how “the chief task in life that a man has to perform is that of impressing the opposite sex, and Mother Nature (as we laughingly call her) is not so kind to men. In fact, she equips many fellows with very little armament for the struggle. An average man has just one, outside chance: he had better be able to make the lady laugh…” The first point that these views make are that Hitchens makes an assumption about male and female gender roles, and these assumptions made as recently as 2007, when the article was published, are dictated to by the conventional norms of heterosexuality. A man’s main thrill, and function, in life is to entice a female. Hitchens continues in the article to add that “Women have no corresponding need to appeal to men in this way. They already appeal to men, if you catch my drift.” The implication is that women are not funny because there is no need for them to be funny; their worth lies in how they appeal to men physically. This source explores the views of the oppressor of female comedy, one who cannot relate personally. However, it can be said that the views expressed are echoes of a precedent created by women themselves. As explored by writer Kristen Anderson Wagner, female comedy today suffers because “The True Woman, the feminine ideal for much of the late nineteenth century, was known for her morality, passivity, and spirituality, not for her ability to tell a joke.” Wagner identifies that there was indeed an ideal stereotype for femininity, the “True Woman,” and they decided early on that humour was not a quality that they should strive to possess.

It is not just views put upon the brand of female comedy that criticise and challenge the very idea of women being funny, sometimes the women in comedy explore the criticism they face head on from their points of view. Tina Fey knows that women in comedy have opposition, and her comedy subverts the clichéd discriminations leveled at them in an attempt to ridicule it. In one of her Saturday Night Live sketches, Fey confronts the idea that women have to fall into certain categories to become successful, such as being seen as a ‘bitch.’ Addressing criticisms aimed at Hillary Clinton during her Presidential bid, Fey accepts that women in power can be ‘bitches’, but as she puts it, bitches get stuff done[1].

The humour here follows a gender stereotype, but in this circumstance, it is used in retaliation and turned on its head. If a woman is a bitch, it is only because they’ve been made one by the incompetence and bigotry they have endured.

Fey further explores the problems posed to a woman in power in her autobiography Bossypants. On page 271, Fey addresses the way in which sexism and ageism merge when discussing a female in the entertainment industry. She writes of how she knew “older men in comedy who can barely feed and clean themselves, and they still work. The women, though, they’re all ‘crazy.’ I have a suspicion — and hear me out, because this is a rough one — that the definition of ‘crazy’ in show business is a woman who keeps talking even after no one wants to f*ck her anymore.” In a world where it is still hard for a woman to get ahead, it is suggested that even when one can break out of the mold, their days are numbered. This applies to women in all aspects of the entertainment world; a simple Google search of Madonna would result in many articles screaming out for her retirement, and calls to burn her at the stake for being remotely sexual past the age of 50. Moreover with her autobiography, the front cover[2] is another reference to the problems women in comedy face. Fey is portrayed as having comically masculine arms, large and hairy.

Tina Fey

Even as forthright as the front cover, Fey is alluding to the perception of women in power and women in comedy; to be in any position of authority or prominence, they have to lose their femininity and take on the characteristics of a man.

In Fey’s critically acclaimed sitcom 30 Rock, there is a joke that revolves around the hormonal irrationality of women. In the episode, entitled TGS Hates Women, there is a montage of comedy sketches[3] written by Fey’s character for their fictional show within the show that all depict famous women being reduced to caricatures due to their menstrual cycle. This joke works on two levels; one that women and their hormones are often treated in such a way without irony and the second that women are aware that they are parodied in such a manner and use it for their own advantage. By becoming part of the joke, the ones being laughed at through the sketch are not the women, but those who use, and believe, such a gimmicky cliché.  This, simultaneously, poses a dilemma though. Is the message being sent that the only way a woman can really be funny is to try and become part of the joke, instead of being the butt of the joke?

Women in comedy have long been misrepresented. Though there are many leading comediennes today leading the pack and changing attitudes towards women who just want to make us laugh, it would appear that a large proportion of female comedy focuses on the assumptions that women are not funny. To be a woman in comedy means laughing at women in comedy. Whether the irony or subversiveness is understood by all remains to be seen, but the content of the jokes as they explicitly appear do not challenge the assumptions that women being funny should still be considered a wayward thought.

Suggested Reading

Tina Fey, Bossypants, Reagan Arthur Books; 1st edition (April 5, 2011)

Christopher Hitchens, Why Women Aren’t Funny Vanity Fair, http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2007/01/hitchens200701

Kristen Anderson Wagner, “Have Women a sense of humour?” The Velvet Light Trap Fall 2011, University of Texas, University of Wisconsin.


[1] Bitch is the new Black. Frequency.com, http://www.frequency.com/video/bitch-is-new-bl/29452991 January, 2012

[3] “Oh no! My period,” Youtube.com http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zVgHaTPM38A

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This entry was posted by jacks24.

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