Standing Up for Women: Female Comedians in the 21st Century
Women have propelled themselves to the forefront of comedy sketches and stand-up with a fresh take on humor. Using platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, and late-night talk shows, these females now stake their claims in what were previously male-dominated creative spaces.
But what makes women’s jokes distinct from those of men? In her first Netflix special, “Baby Cobra,” Ali Wong, a comedian and writer for ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat,” revolutionized stand-up by performing while pregnant. Ms. Wong not only embraced her own condition and took ownership of her sexuality, but she also cracked jokes about a previous miscarriage, a painful experience that many women endure but rarely discuss. Finding humor in the humorless is one of her specialties — and an ongoing trend in female comedy. As a woman of color, she is able to tackle the issue of race with nuance, describing how she and her husband, both of Asian descent, find common ground in their heritage. Another quality that sets Ms. Wong apart is her role as the primary provider for her family, which allows her to flip gender stereotypes. Now, women are able to make a career out of being funny, even though males typically command this field.
However, women still face barriers in comedy: only one out of the twelve top-earning comedians of 2017 was a woman. Amy Schumer was number five on the Forbes’ list, making a reported $37,500,000. She made roughly half as much money as number one on the list, Jerry Seinfeld, who earned $69,000,000. Some of the men on the list were veterans such as Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, and Jeff Dunham, but Louis C.K.’s recent fall from grace due to his sexual misconduct shows the increasing need for a spotlight on funny female voices. The #MeToo movement is opening up more opportunities for women, and comedians have even found a way to poke fun at the hashtag — just watch Laura Benanti impersonate the First Lady in “Melania Trump Gives Her Own State of the Union” on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. A new breed of feminism is also emerging with the age of women in comedy, since females can shed light on sexism by telling their own personal encounters with harassment and assault. While men in comedy have often boasted about their own exploits and questionable behavior, women are now calling them out.
Ironically, more females stepped up in comedy during the 2016 election, which enabled President Trump and others to demean women. Kate McKinnon, known before for her impressions of Justin Bieber, Ellen DeGeneres, and other celebrities, rose to national fame by acting as Hillary Clinton in SNL sketches. Besides wearing uncannily similar outfits, mimicking Secretary Clinton’s speech and gait, and asking for votes in a parody of “Love Actually,” Ms. McKinnon humanized the presidential candidate, engraving her in the American public’s memory in an unprecedented manner. Secretary Clinton herself appeared as a bartender in the skit, “Hillary Clinton Bar Talk,” indicating that she could be self-deprecating and expose herself to an audience’s laughter. Later, President Trump’s absence from the White House Correspondents’ Dinner allowed Michelle Wolf to criticize the administration with biting humor. Although many of her jokes were ill-received, she announced her intention in the beginning of her monologue to “try to make fun of the president in a new way, in a way I think will really get him.”
Women in stand-up have become the center of dramas, too. “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” a Golden Globe-winning and Emmy-nominated Amazon Prime show, tells the story of a woman, Midge Maisel, in 1950s New York City who becomes a stand-up comedian after her husband leaves her. Originally, Mrs. Maisel fits the stereotype of a Jewish housewife, but her quick wit outmatches that of her husband, who aspires to be a comedian himself. Midge’s methodical approach towards the art of laughter is similar to that of many female comedians; she writes tedious notes in a little notebook during each stand-up routine, demonstrating her commitment to the craft. Not only are Mrs. Maisel’s stand-up performances full of clever jokes, but the show’s dialogue is also comical, creating a portrait of a dysfunctional family that grapples with the ideas of gender roles, infidelity, and ultimately, sacrifice.
Women in comedy today defy the norm by simply daring to be funny. Stand-up performers and sketch comedians are not the only ones enacting change; female writers for TV shows and movies are breaking barriers as well, improvising jokes that audiences hear from actors on the screen. Comedy developed by females will show the world that women are ready to overturn expectations and innovate — and make people laugh along the way.