Feminism and Comedy: Not Mutually Exclusive, Contrary to Popular Belief


by Lindsey Victoria Thompson

I was in a film development class recently where we read a spec script, wrote coverage on it, and brainstormed about how to improve the script for a rewrite.  It was a feature comedy about women’s lib in the 70s with a backdrop of a being set at a 70s porn magazine. It was good, not great, but a big stance the class as a whole seemed to take is that they felt uncomfortable seeing “serious” and “controversial” topics like feminism illustrated through humor. To which I responded by saying that A) there is no rule that feminism can’t be funny, B) I choose to live in a world where the idea that women are equal to men isn’t a controversy, C) there are a million and a half uber serious feminist films already and the reason I liked the script was because it was a new voice for these ideas—and one that people might actually want to see commercially on Friday night, and D) how could you possibly reimagine editing a 70s porn magazine as a drama, which was actually a popular idea in the class.

I love going to a place like NYU because it’s home to one of the most socially aware populations in the world.  If I ever want to rant about feminism, the chances that there’s someone within earshot who will want to listen are almost alarmingly high. But lately, even in this microcosm of progressivity, I’ve had a handful of instances that make me question just how forward-thinking our student body is, starting with one classmate’s comment about the “controversy” of feminism.  I tried to let this slide, telling myself that my classmate was just an asshole (which he is, by the way, ask anyone who’s ever met him).  But then I started having some other odd conversations with classmates that aren’t assholes, which makes wrapping my head around these ideas more difficult because I can’t just chalk it up to someone being a dick.

In a screenwriting class I’m in, a guy tried to characterize a female antagonist to the class but he could only tell us about her clothes, her body, and her annoying voice. And he really didn’t seem to understand that none of these things count as personality traits.  In class, he struggles to define his female lead as anything other than beautiful and graceful. And then, later, in a tangent we got on in a comedy writing class, it proved oddly difficult to explain to the handful of straight men in the room that the objectification of women — from sexual harassment to other, more tacit forms of objectification — are always, always, always wrong, always.  Some of my male classmates were surprisingly defensive of some of these practices. I don’t accuse any of these men of being bad people.  Ultimately, I think this kind of well-meaning disrespect towards women doesn’t come from any sort of bad place. I think it’s because they don’t know women well enough to understand why these things are problems.

If you know women even a little bit, then you should know that we don’t ALL hate this or love that. That’s because there isn’t just one kind of woman.  And no, there aren’t just a handful of options either. There are unlimited options — I mean fu*king bushels of options — of what a woman can be.

All of these ideas were circling my head at the same time that I was watching (and rewatching) Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson’s new series on Comedy Central, “Broad City.” I loved the series immediately because it was something that I could identify with completely even though I had never seen anything like it before. Some critics of the show (and by critics, I mean friends of mine) have said that they don’t enjoy it because these women — Ilana and Abbi — aren’t like any other women they’ve ever met.  It’s weird, because that’s the exact reason why I love the series. It dares to show you women you’ve never seen before.  I don’t know women like Ilana and Abbi, but I want to. That’s why I love “Broad City” and the people that make it. Because they’ve created a space where women like these can exist in popular media.

An article in the Wall Street Journal praised the show as an example of “sneak-attack feminism.”  The fact that the writer considers this a compliment is our first problem.  The only thing I can imagine the phrase “sneak-attack feminism” to mean is when you’re sitting on the couch, watching some show, and just when you think you’re safe and throw your head back in laughter some sort of feminist ninja propels from your living room ceiling (not wearing a bra, of course) and forces you to read Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex.” This article suggests that feminism is an idea served best when it’s disguised as something else.

I love the idea that TV comedy is best when it’s specific, and “Broad City” has a very specific audience. It’s super “insider-y” to New York, it’s about women, and it’s about young people.  It feels like it speaks directly to me.  I love “Broad City” for so so many reasons.  But, to be clear, the primary reason is that it’s funny first. “Broad City” isn’t interested in delivering a feminist message first—which is a part of the reason why I love it and, ironically, why I think it’s ultimately more feminist in the end. What I mean by this is that the writers haven’t set out saying “okay, what feminist ideals can I convey today?” Instead, they’re just writing really funny, truthful stories about women and, as a result, it has an underlying feminist tone.  It’s not trying to be feminist, it just is. I find it promising that there’s a space for writing that can be feminist and so many other things at the same time, whereas for a long time it seemed like if something (or even someone, to make this about a broader subject) was going to be feminist or queer or whatever else, then that was going to be the defining factor of that thing or person. (By the way, the bizarrely hilarious queer side notes that Ilana makes and are never really explained are some of my favorite parts of the show—and the fact that they don’t feel the need to explain these comments further illustrates my overall point.) What I’m saying is, “Broad City” has proven to be commercially successful but you could also probably find it at The Women and Women First Bookstore (re: “Portlandia”), and I think that’s pretty great.

As a young woman actively terrified about being swept away by life post-graduation, it’s refreshing to see two women who have total ownership over their lives and their decisions — even when they seem to consistently make the wrong decisions.  I’m a member of a generation that is more afraid of failure than of death, and on a very personal level “Broad City” seemed to come along at just the right time to show me that there is room in this city (and this world) for young women to try, fail, and try again.

All this brings me back to my film development class, when that Grade A Dick suggested that something as “serious and controversial” as feminism shouldn’t be addressed in a comedy. Feminism can be funny, and there’s no rule saying that it can’t except for the ones we impose on ourselves. We don’t have to trick people into thinking about feminism and it degrades the both the message and the humor of a show like “Broad City” to make it into a spectacle of smoke and mirrors where pesky ideas like believing women have the right to make their own decisions lurk around the corner from every laugh.



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