Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Short Comedy Film Shortcomings Part 4: Laughing At Women, Not With Them

In the January 2007 issue of Vanity Fair, cranky Christopher Hitchens wrote a "provocative" article entitled, "Why Women Aren't Funny."  A hot topic among cultural critics and Jezebel readers, the article offers a confusing and all-too-common take on women and comedy at the dawn of the 21st century.  On the one hand, Mr. Hitchens seems to be saying that women have all the power, and making them laugh is the only thing men can do to get their attention; and on the other hand, he explains that women are burdened by more practical concerns, like giving birth, and therefore can't make light of the cruel world we live in.  Unfortunately, these conflicting attitudes also influence the portrayal of women in many of the submissions we receive. In fact, some of the gender-based characterizations are so antiquated it makes us wonder if the production team has ever met a human female in the flesh. And while these comic stereotypes are most prevalent in films made by male directors (who also send in the overwhelming majority of submissions, but that's for another post...), we've certainly seen them in work by female directors as well. When women are employed for comedy in these films, it's not because they get to tell the jokes; it's because they can be described as one or more of these three things:

They're Terrifying: The women in this category are all-powerful, all-knowing, and have very little interest in men. Or, at least, not in the "hapless" male protagonist.  Therefore, our Hapless Hero (very young, or very nerdy, armed only with his sense of humor) must persuade the Terrifying Lady (bold, self-reliant, built like the prow of a ship) to come down off her pedestal and be with him. While that may sound like the plot of nearly every Woody Allen movie, in the good ones (you know which ones), the woman is still her own person with her own objectives and romantic criteria. In a boon for the character in question, she may also be Diane Keaton. But in short films featuring the Terrifying Lady, she becomes "the enemy," even though she's also the main character's objective. She asserts herself as the antagonist every time she asserts herself as an individual.  We're supposed to laugh at the lengths to which the hero will go to win her heart, to bring her down to his level where she is no longer strong and terrifying.  But that doesn't make for a very convincing romance, comedy or film. It just sounds like wish-fulfillment.

They're Difficult: Another category with the funny woman as adversary, this type of woman is not a goal but an obstacle to be overcome. Why? Because she demands things of the male protagonist: money, time, attention, emotional engagement, gifts, romance, sex. As a result, the comedy comes from the put-upon man trying to meet the fickle needs of his woman, whose only purpose in life, apparently, is to flummox him. Irrational behavior is one of the cornerstones of comedy, George Burns & Gracie Allen being one of the most satisfying examples. But, unlike George Burns who directed all credit for their hilarity to Gracie, many of our submitting filmmakers seem genuinely angry with their Difficult Women. They play it for laughs but the underlying story is that these wacky women are holding the main character back, miring him in a dismal, half-hearted comedy when he should be starring in the sequel to Scarface, or some other lofty all-male endeavor. As in Mr. Hitchens' article, the comedy that stems from the Difficult Woman's petty day-to-day concerns ironically becomes the reason why "women aren't funny." Having a demanding and difficult antagonist is ripe for humor, if the woman is portrayed as an individual, but it loses its juice if she behaves that way simply because "that's how women are."  Because it's often not true.

They're Secretly Men: The weirdly positive category. In the recent film, "Up In the Air," the female lead says to her male counterpart, "Think of me as you, with a vagina." While the movie ultimately upends that idea, many of our submitting filmmakers seem to take the sentiment more seriously. The usual storyline goes like this: the young male lead develops a crush on his buxom, sassy co-worker/bartender/sister's friend. Once he gets her attention (haplessly; see "Terrifying" above), it becomes clear that they're both looking for the same thing: a buddy. She swears, she swaggers, she likes sports, she can hold her liquor; she's actually more "man" than he is. And she's got that sweet rack. The problem is, once you get past the whole "chick acting like a dude" thing, Secretly Man Woman doesn't provide any further conflict (or humor) because she doesn't have any of her own needs or goals. She's like a funhouse mirror where the protagonist sees only a reflection of himself, but with exciting new shapes. There will often be a female character from one of the other categories lingering on the sidelines, providing a vivid reminder of the kind of woman men don't want. She's bitchy, she's demanding, she's emotional, but all a guy really wants is a girl who's just one of the boys.

The solution to all of this is a simple one.  Filmmakers: take an interest in all of your characters.  Put yourself in their shoes, think about what they want, consider what they add to your story. One-note characters and stereotypes can get an easy laugh, but nothing beats the conflict of individuals with their own believable agendas. Sure, Hollywood gets away with casual sexism all the time, but we don't laugh when they do it either.  And we haven't even talked about women as lead characters!  But sadly we don't get very many of those either.  Needless to say, ignoring or shortchanging women leaves the comic potential of half the world's population unmined.  And that's a lot of short films waiting to be made.

Check back with us next week, when we'll be posting another Movies We Love entry, devoted to great funny women in short film.  Because we believe in negative AND positive reinforcement!

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