My book Pretty/Funny: Women Comedians and Body Politics (due out in March, 2014) is about the surprisingly political and feminist work being done by some of our most popular women comics these days. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, acclaimed hosts of the Golden Globes two years in a row, are known for their feminism; Kathy Griffin, annual host of CNN’s New Year’s Eve bash, claims gay men as her most important fans and proclaims she has “nothing to say” to straight men who might be in the audience; Wanda Sykes, a popular guest on every talk show right now, was the first black female comic to come out as gay. And our most beloved American comic right now is Ellen DeGeneres, a butch lesbian. How did all this happen?
Comedy by its nature is subversive; it’s a place where women can be unruly and talk back. But in the past, most women in comedy have been stars of romantic comedies, where they can be as subversive as they like because they end up in a safe, traditional place: married, or at least as part of a couple. The actresses in these comedies aren’t comedian/writers; they’re actresses with good comic timing. And unlike men in film comedies, they can’t be funny-looking or they wouldn’t get these parts.
But there’s also been a tradition of female writers/performers who were doing stage or stand-up comedy, an aggressive performance style that was certainly not considered feminine or “pretty.” There are far far fewer of these women in pop culture history, but their numbers are growing. From Fanny Brice through Phyllis Diller, Lily Tomlin, and Joan Rivers, these comics often made fun of notions of “pretty” by satirizing femininity. Mae West based her whole career on the lampooning of gender roles. And some of today’s most popular women comedians continue that tradition. Take a look at the cover of Tina Fey’s book Bossypants, which does quite a job on “pretty.” Also, a major point in my book is that “pretty” usually means white. Margaret Cho fiercely demonstrates this in many of her performances, Mindy Kaling takes this up on her TV series, and Wanda Sykes has some devastating routines about “white looks” at the black female body. If you think about all the old complaints about humorless feminists, what we’re seeing here is exciting and also pretty funny. -Linda Mizejewski