This roundtable features Johanna Isaacson and Madeline Lane-McKinley.
Bridesmaids of Comedy, Handmaidens of Capital
The notion of a ‘feminist boom’ in comedy seems to recirculate every couple years, and I’m tired of it. The supposed novelty of the funny lady has to be dusted-off each time a woman (read: white, thin, degree from Barnard) gets another TV show.
More recently, this fantasy of mainstream ‘feminist’ comedy peaked in 2011, with the Kristen Wiig / Maya Rudolph / Melissa McCarthy vehicle Bridesmaids. The Judd Apatow-produced girl comedy is a reformulation of the bromance, which is itself a reformulation of the romantic comedy – the narrative logics of which neither subgenre manages to transcend. In the end, the struggling funny lady / anti-heroine falls in love with a charming police officer, and her class-based conflicts with her best friend’s other, richer friend are resolved with song and dance.
The song and dance – and other, generically ‘rom com’ features – are always outmeasured by gross-out humor. Many would applaud the comediennes of Bridesmaids for the bravery of their self-degradation. The gross-out jokes were deemed masculinizing and un-ladylike, drawing the movie into the tropes of ‘bro-comedy.’ The gross-out climax involves lots of diarrhea. What’s funnier than the scene itself is that this is somehow the makings of ‘bro-comedy’ – that diarrhea humor is intrinsically masculine. Whereas most of the diarrhea, vomit, and poop in this world is cleaned up by women, it is somehow the object of de-feminizing humor. The scene can only be funny because, in the world of its upwardly mobile and mostly white characters buying dresses at an expensive wedding boutique, the diarrhea doesn’t have to be cleaned. A scene about cleaning diarrhea could, of course, be hilarious – but in this world, there is no cleaning, and service workers are only conjured when they are to be blamed for food poisoning.
Since 2008, Wiig has starred in 2-5 movies each year, during her last seasons at Saturday Night Live, along with Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Maya Rudolph. There’s nothing new to this story at all, but novelty continues to be the premise of this ‘feminist boom’ in the industry, just as the hegemony of SNL remains mostly unquestioned. Like everything on SNL, these are palatable women – “fly-over states” kind of women, who participate in the long comic tradition of self-deprecation while having all of the physicalities of vanilla leading ladies. She is her own straight man. She has to be this way. This was always the problem with Fey’s iconic Liz Lemon from 30 Rock – whose “funny” struggle with binge-eating, for instance, never tipped her over a size 6. Her sidekick, on the other hand, is about the same size, but mocked relentlessly for her eating disorder as a “funny” symptom of vanity. “Funny” is all very safe.
In SNL, the skits seem calculated to be about absolutely nothing. I hadn’t watched the show for a while so I went on youtube and watched the top clip of the moment. It was about a fifties girl doo-wop group who got uncomfortable on a TV show because they had only written one song. While completely unfunny, (the joke was that they only had one song. Get it?), the skit held a kind of fascination for me. If I brainstormed all day I don’t think I could think of a routine with lower stakes. This joke and its performance could offend no one, hold significance for no one, it exists in a world where history and culture are just a sequence of pastiched stereotypes of the pop cultural decades, and though it was a “period piece,” it made no attempt to include any details or interpretation of the fifties beyond our most basic stereotypes of that period.
While 30 Rock mildly spoofs this enforced inanity, the power-based romance between Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy creepily resolves a critique of the SNL boys club by staging a kind of deep bond between the Republican, corporate, classist CEO and the supposedly frumpy liberal feminist. With this bromance-ish relationship in the foreground, the show seems to be saying that the fact that the pair are organized and smart makes them a new kind of deserving elite, trumping all political critique and positions.
‘Equal opportunity’ is a generative gimmick. While these SNL alum / Judd Apatow comediennes have absorbed the attribution of a ‘feminist boom’ in comedy, they describe the emptying out of feminism – the Nancy Fraser thesis of second-wave handmaidens of capitalism. It’s like all those Diane Keaton movies from the ‘80s are just being subtly modified over and over again. For instance, 1987’s Baby Boom — the glass ceiling rom-com which has Keaton as a single-mother and CEO — would be reconceived in the 2008 Fey / Poehler vehicle Baby Mama. This stalling out in the ‘80s — the ‘equal opportunities’ feminism modeled by this comedienne phenomenon — marks the absent center of the upcoming Ghostbusters adaptation, which will feature an all-female cast including Wiig and McCarthy, as well as Leslie Mann and Kate McKinnon.
The false comedienne boom also shows the simultaneous expansion and impoverishment of alternative film as a whole. After the huge success of Bridesmaids, Wiig has turned away from the blockbuster to participate in a string of indie movies. This could be seen as an attempt to move beyond the near-ubiquitous SNL logic Madeline points to which, when boiled down, is often mean spirited, making fun of outsiders and weirdos in an arguably fascistic bid to discipline the laughing masses (think Wiig’s character in Anchorman 2) and rigidly policing the boundaries of comedy to exclude not only leftist or even liberal politics, but anything beyond “universal” issues such as pop culture, the differences between women and men, not wanting to go to work on Monday, wanting to get laid when you’re ugly, etc.
So, does the move to the indie escape this logic by taking on “complexity,” as touted by many reviewers? Taking Wiig’s latest venture, Welcome to Me, as an example, I’d like to give it a qualified no. One good thing about the film, which follows Alice Krieg (Wiig), a woman with borderline personality disorder, as she realizes her dream of creating a solipsistic television show through winning the lottery, is that it doesn’t, until the end, direct the audience’s feelings and empathy in a clear direction. Alice’s pathology can be seen as a means of resisting the regime of what Arlie Hochschild famously called the “managed heart.” In a world of feminized labor that requires “deep acting” in which “the acting of passions grows out of living in them,” deeply confounding private and commercial life, Alice’s mental illness blocks out the (to the rest of us) omnipresent emotional clues and conventions that police and direct emotion. So the film does give a hint of what a refusal of affective labor might look like and I think Wiig offers a strong performance of a range of affective tonalities that suggest thwarted desires beyond fulfilling the needs of the new economy. I don’t want to discard Wiig’s impassive yet sensitive micro-expressions which sometimes hint at a kind of acting that can account for a range of affective possibilities, even as all of these are squelched or channeled into ever-more oppressive realms of reification.
However, Welcome to Me gets out of grappling with the cost of emotional refusal by beginning, rather than ending, with a deus ex machina in which Alice wins eighty-six million dollars in the California state lottery, extricating her from economic compulsions to cave into social “feeling rules” and allowing her to skate by the intractable “rule reminders” to which those who can’t escape the imbrication of economic and social life are subject. This neat excision of Alice from the social allows us to safely explore our desire to both ridicule and empathize with the experience of mental illness without attending to its economic context. In this way Welcome to Me shows how the fantasy of novelty in female comedy is tied to the fantasy of novelty in indie cinema, a feminized minor cinema that is supposedly an alternative to its blockbuster big brother. Both female comedy and the indie can be tied to a seemingly inconsequential attribute which looms large: that of quirkiness, a mode which we can see to be at the center of Sianne Ngai’s triangulation of the cute, the zany, and the interesting, minor aesthetic categories with major implications for the cognitive mapping of our moment.
Yes, I’ve always been disgusted by the ways that illness is rendered quirky in indie films. The ‘manic-pixie dream girl’ is the ultimate misogynist fantasy, of a woman (or, “girl”) who is cuter the more she suffers. In the indie-comedy world, this archetype seems most dominant in already explicit male fantasies of the Garden State variety. In these indie ‘fem-coms,’ however, the trope is more disturbing, as it is expected to diverge in some way from these misogynist tropes.
As in Welcome to Me, Wiig is often cast as mentally unstable. Two of her more recent films, Skeleton Twins and Girl Most Likely, incorporate suicideation into her quirkiness. Both seem to draw heavily from Harold and Maude as a site of hipster recuperation, while they lack the critical negativity that is so keenly at work in the classic dark comedy. Suicide becomes just another way of innovating the rom-com formula — like diarrhea jokes! Unlike Maude, the Wiig character in Skeleton Twins ends up reconciling with the ways in which her suicideation is structured by patriarchy — specifically in her relationships with her father, brother, and male sexual partners. In deciding that her problems are internal — and presumably, consenting to pharmaceutical medication — she accepts full responsibility for the conditions of her suffering.
In order to critique the limits of the spectacular rise of the comedienne and the corresponding ideology of independent cinema we have to (sadly) state the obvious, that there could be a feminist comedy. Trust me, this critique is not coming from a humorless bunch. What we want is a novum, a feminist comic estrangement, sort-of hinted at in the off-brand humor of Maria Bamford. And we’re getting it from neither Bridesmaids nor Welcome to Me, both of which end in creepy sentimental reconciliation with the patriarchal classist world as it is.
However, this failure should not be seen as the problem of an individual work or comedienne (as I mentioned, I think Wiig shows flashes of a more nuanced, even non-culinary, acting style), but rather an indicator of a contemporary representational impasse that becomes all the more glaring in supposedly “independent” films. It is telling that the first narrative film of any kind ever made in 1896, La Fee aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy), was a feminist comedy created by a woman, Alice Guy-Blache, that risked more than much of the cinema that followed in the next 120 years. This sixty-second film depicts a woman gleefully plucking babies out of cabbage patches, invoking a utopian regime of reproduction in which childbirth is easily and comically subverted. Alice Guy-Blache was one of the most creative and prolific voices during her brief window of opportunity in early cinema. However, with the rise of the studio system and the personal betrayal she experienced at the hands of a less-creative, less-competent, cheating husband, Guy-Blache withdrew from all film-related activities in 1922 and became a hermit, focusing on parental duties. Her former collaborator, Leon Guamont, wrote a history of his company with no mention of her contributions.
This closure was just the beginning of a series of blows to the possibilities for a feminist (comic or otherwise) cinema, which was cemented in 1933 for 35 years with the Hays code, which attempted to and was fairly successful at censoring all material that rebelled from a religiously and politically patriarchal, conservative view. The Hays code was broken with the sixties “cultural revolution,” but here the puritanism of the fifties was replaced by the repressive desublimation of the sexual revolution. A subtle feminist reading of sixties and seventies counterculture cinema is excruciating but necessary. These films can be scrutinized minutely to extract driblets of feminist counterculture subjectivity against the universal staging of youth liberation in terms of the male conquest of passive, often tragic, hippie chicks. By the time Lizzie Borden was able to make Born In Flames, an actual countercultural feminist film that, as Brent Bellamy notes “puts forth a vision of a complex feminist movement,” the window of opportunity for follow-ups was over, and we were deep into an age of blockbusters that required massive concentrated wealth and patriarchal backing. When Hollywood realized that there was some need and nostalgia for alternative film, it created such phenomena as the Sundance festival and funded non-threatening smaller-scale projects (with some exceptions of course), delinked from a political or cultural context that could form anything other than an individualist logic that proclaimed “Welcome to Me.” Thus, the inoculating appearance of a female comedy boom and a feminized indie cinema revival are key symptoms of the progressive closure of subversive representative possibilities.