Feminism is the new funny

"Baby Mama's" Amy Poehler has upended the old stereotypes about women and comedy -- and added a few fart jokes.

By Rebecca Traister

Published April 25, 2008 10:29AM (EDT)

Few words have less of a historical and cultural connection to one another than "funny" and "feminist." In fact, were one to list impressions often associated with feminism in the cultural imagination, "humorless" might fall just below "shrill" and "hairy." But longtime improv and "Saturday Night Live" colleagues Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, who on Friday open in "Baby Mama," are two of the funniest women out there, and they have spent the last few years turning long-held assumptions about Hollywood, gender, politics and funniness on their head.

"Oooh, that sounds like I have some kind of power. I hope I use it for good!" said Poehler when I presented her with this thesis.

Poehler, a self-proclaimed feminist ("Absolutely I am!" she declared without hesitation when I asked her), once told Bust magazine, "I get worried for young girls sometimes; I want them to feel that they can be sassy and full and weird and geeky and smart and independent, and not so withered and shriveled." She has also delivered some of "Saturday Night Live's" most female-friendly material, like her Weekend Update routine exhorting Hollywood's young stars to stop removing all their pubic hair. ("Ladies, what's up with all the deforestation going on down there? You need hair down there! ... There was a time when a lady garden was as big as a slice of New York pizza!") More recently, Poehler and Fey's biting commentary has fed into dialogue about the election, and the punch line "Bitch is the new black" is now appearing on pro-Clinton T-shirts (despite strenuous protestations that it was not any kind of endorsement). Fey, who was the first female head writer of "Saturday Night Live," has woven sophisticated humor about race, gender, corporatization and the objectification of MILFs into her NBC show "30 Rock"; one episode lampooned a groundbreaking feminist comedy writer (Carrie Fisher), nudgingly suggesting that Fey herself is on track to be, well, a groundbreaking feminist comedy writer.

Now, Fey and Poehler star in "Baby Mama," a fertility comedy built on the "Odd Couple" buddy model -- now with more frozen sperm! -- and one of the first comedies in years to sell itself on the pairing of two women. It's a throwback to the days when Lily Tomlin and Bette Midler and Shelley Long roamed the multiplexes and a sharp testament to the ways in which Fey and Poehler have upended the old "women aren't funny" trope, most recently revivified by Christopher Hitchens in his lady-baiting Vanity Fair piece of a year ago. Like so much stereotyped vitriol, the Hitchens piece dropped at a moment in which the assumptions on which it drew were being openly threatened: Fey's television show "30 Rock" was drawing critical acclaim, and Sarah Silverman and Amy Sedaris were media darlings.

This spring, funny women are even more visible on the pop culture landscape, thanks to Silverman's "I'm fucking Matt Damon" video, Fey and Poehler's viral "Saturday Night Live" skits, the post-writers' strike return of the heavily awarded "30 Rock," and now, "Baby Mama." Even Vanity Fair extended a lame mea culpa by putting Fey, Poehler and Silverman on its cover, along with a piece that conceded that women might be funny, as long as they were hot, and willing to be photographed in slutty outfits.

Of course, women are funny. At least some of them. And that's particularly useful if you happen to be a politically and socially aware performer with something to say. As Poehler said, "You can get a point across better by making people laugh than by stridently telling them anything."

Not that there's anything strident going on in "Baby Mama," a broad comedy -- think lispy birthing coaches saying "pewineum" -- that's a closer cousin to, say, "Stripes" than it is to "Tootsie" in its interest in social critique. Though the movie digs around in issues of class and a fertility-obsessed culture, there is nothing highfalutin going on here.

Both Poehler and Fey have talked about the influence of earlier generations of comedians, especially ones like Tomlin and Midler and Teri Garr and Diane Keaton, performers whom Poehler described to me as "funny women who you imagine would be funny in real life, who played kind of age-appropriate roles and who looked regular. The combination of those things were commonplace when we were growing up and might not be now."

"Baby Mama" has the DNA not simply of male buddy pictures from "The Odd Couple" to "Wedding Crashers," but also of 80's-style lady-driven or domestic comedies like "Baby Boom," "Mr. Mom" and "Outrageous Fortune."

"I studied a lot of 'Working Girl' stuff," said Poehler. The class differences depicted in Mike Nichols' 1988 Staten Island fable are central to the dynamic between Fey's all-organic Kate and Poehler's Big Gulp-quaffing Angie. But "Working Girl," like "Baby Mama," was not simply a film about class; it was about what happens when a working life collides with female life. Produced at a time when Hollywood was wallowing in feminist backlash, it makes sure that Sigourney Weaver's wealthy, ambitious, chilly villain of a boss, Katherine Parker, is punished for her emasculating power when Harrison Ford leaves her for the softer, more feminine Melanie Griffith. "Working Girl's" message was clear: Truly dedicated career women could have power, but they could not have happy lives.

It's exactly the trade-off described by single, childless organic grocery executive Kate Holbrook (Fey), who explains in voice-over that while she spent her 20s and most of her 30s doing everything she was supposed to do at work, "Some women got pregnant. I got promotions."

Instead of serving as the end of the story, however, that's the beginning of "Baby Mama." Kate turns to a sperm bank, and when that doesn't work, to Angie, Poehler's character, who soon leaves her deeply scuzzy boyfriend Carl (Dax Shepard) to move in with Kate. "What's nice about 'Baby Mama,'" said Poehler, "is, and I don't know if we necessarily, collectively decided for this to happen or not, but that as the movie goes on, our characters have to depend less and less on the men in the film." Angie decides to move on from a man who is holding her back, and in doing so realizes that she is happier on her own. "Tina's character," said Poehler, "is ready to start a family with or without a husband, which is, one could argue, maybe a different kind of story."

It is different, and "Baby Mama" and its creators know it, presenting poetic revenge for the old Katherine Parkers of the world -- not only in Kate's ability to be a single career woman and have a family anyway, but in the casting of Weaver herself, who plays wealthy, ambitious, chilly, obviously post-menopausal Chaffee Bicknell, the head of the surrogacy agency who miraculously continues to spit out her own children, as she says, "the old-fashioned way." ("What, with a time machine?" responds the incredulous Fey.) Twenty years after "Working Girl," Katherine Parker could get dumped by Harrison Ford and still pump out precious little angels into her dotage. Fey's character can be the movie's heroine -- not its villain -- a woman who, like so many of us, chose to live independently, and happily, during her youth, and finds herself in need of creative ways to reproduce in her late 30s.

"This is a film we could not have made before, obviously," said Poehler, who is married to fellow comedian Will Arnett and does not have children, "because the biggest difference that our generation has from our mothers' is that we just don't have babies yet. Our mothers by this time in life had one, two, three children, or they were never going to have children. Our mothers look at us now -- I'm 36 -- and the choices and experiences we have are way different than what they had from 25 to 35." Poehler paused. "Yeah. And then we do like really funny fart jokes."

But the ability to do the really funny fart jokes is its own kind of social evolution, though one that Poehler insisted she hasn't had to work too hard for. "In a personal way, the struggle as a female comedian was done for me by the women who came before me," she said. "The women that were on 'SNL' from the beginning, or the women who were on SCTV, or the women in the films in the '80s when I was growing up. I am lucky to be in this position." The story that "Saturday Night Live" is a boys club, said Poehler, "is a really old story." The show had Fey -- its first female head writer -- at the helm for years, and, she said, "in the past 10 years the women have been really strong on the show. Even before I got there, Molly [Shannon] and Ana [Gasteyer] and Cheri [Oteri] were kind of rippin' it up."

It doesn't hurt the comedy, she added, that ladies have made strides in other areas as well. For instance, Poehler's Hillary Clinton impersonation -- one that has actually come up in the real debates -- has been made possible by the existence of Hillary Clinton on the political stage. "There are so many women to play," she said. "So many strong women in politics and entertainment and in positions of power that you get to impersonate, it's really cool."

Starting from this plateau of increased opportunity, Poehler said, she and Fey and their peers can exercise their own feminism -- flicking at social and political issues, calling out dumb girls and a chauvinist media --but only if they don't try too hard.

Poehler said, "It's like when you sit down to write a sketch at 'SNL' and you're like, 'I'm going to write something really important.' Or you say, 'I'm going to write something really political this week.'" Here she mimics the blank stare of writer's block. "Suddenly, you're like, 'Oh, fuck.' And as soon as you say, 'You know what I want to do? I want to change the minds of viewers!' it's like, 'Oh, brother.'"

At some point, said Poehler, "feminism certainly informs my day to day, but then you've got to let it go. And also not worry. It's the same with worrying about sensitivity regarding issues of infertility and surrogacy. You have to not worry too much about who you're offending and who you're poking fun of."

"The way to do it," said Poehler, "is to do what men do, which is you just assume power. You're not grateful for it."

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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