Where the girls aren't: The Times Magazine's comedy issue

The ever-vexing role of women in comedy.

Rebecca Traister
November 15, 2006 5:00AM (UTC)

Over at Eat the Press, Rachel Sklar has gotten all up in the face of this weekend's New York Times Magazine, which was a special issue about comedy.

Sklar notes the disproportionate number of men featured in a story about YouTube comedians, and the fact that the magazine asked 15 men and three women to name their favorite comedies. She's also critical of "the same tired meme about how women aren't being recognized as funny," with reference to Sara Corbett's story about Anna Faris ("The Ditz Ghetto"), which Sklar describes as "asking -- but not answering -- 'Is there a place in Hollywood for a funny woman who doesn't want to just play dumb?'" Sklar argues that the assumption that today's funny leading ladies get treated like blond end-tables leaves out increasingly powerful lady comics like Catherine O'Hara, Parker Posey, Tina Fey, Rachel Dratch and Amy Poehler, as well as hit films like "Mean Girls," the equitably cast Christopher Guest movies, and the upcoming "Spring Breakdown."


It's true that to leave these women out is a serious oversight, and any lack of deference to Tina Fey cuts straight to Broadsheet's very soul. But to be fair, Corbett does mention "a handful of moneymaking comedies focused on women," including "Mean Girls" and "Legally Blonde," but argues that the big-budget, blockbuster comedies "remain almost exclusively the province of men."

And on another level, the paucity of these women in Hollywood -- and, in fact, in the New York Times Magazine -- points to the fact that the meme Sklar frets about is not so much tired as it is exhausting in its continued relevance. In the Faris piece, Corbett observes quite rightly that other eras have been "more friendly to comic women" and that somewhere along the way, "comedy became a showcase for outsize male personalities."

"Mean Girls" was a monster hit (grossing $86 million) and Fey and Dratch and Posey are rising stars in Hollywood. But their box-office power and salaries are minuscule compared to the Jack Blacks, Will Ferrells, Jim Carreys and Borats of the world, all of whom are in fact outsize male personalities at the centers of their own films around whom their female costars -- appealing and talented and smart though they may be -- are meant to orbit attractively.

"Amid all the baboonery, there seems to be little oxygen left on-screen for a funny actress," writes Corbett, while Faris herself says that for some directors she's worked with, "a woman's place in terms of comedy is to be charming."

It's also interesting that save for the work of Guest, who creates great parts for women and for men, the handful of increasingly powerful women in comedy have had to write their own material. Dratch co-wrote "Spring Breakdown," while Fey wrote "Mean Girls" and her new television show, "30 Rock"; not coincidentally, "Saturday Night Live" produced these female powerhouses during the years she was head writer there. Anyone remember that Shel Silverstein poem? "Donald heard a mermaid sing/ Susy spied an elf/ But all the magic I have known/ I've had to make myself."

Luckily, a good deal of the comic magic I have known was made by Teri Garr, who was also interviewed in the Times Magazine. So read that. Oh, and watch "Tootsie," both because Garr's in it and because it is one of the funniest, smartest, deftest examinations of gender ever put on-screen.


Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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