Top 10 Feminist Moments in Women’s Comedy

This Sunday, Ellen DeGeneres will host the 86th Academy Awards. DeGeneres and her career comprises a full chapter of Linda Mizejewski’s new book Pretty/Funny: Women Comedians and Body Politics. Other chapters cover star writer/performer comedians Kathy Griffin, Tina Fey, Sarah Silverman, Margaret Cho, and Wanda Sykes, among others. We asked Professor Mizejewski to list her favorite moments in comedy when women have delivered provocative commentary on women’s issues.

Top 10 Feminist Moments in Women’s Comedy
By Linda Mizejewski

My favorite feminist moments in comedy would have to begin with Fanny Brice and her parody of the Ziegfeld showgirls in the 1920s, and then move to Mae West, Lily Tomlin, and episodes of Roseanne. The list would turn into another book! So I’ll focus instead on the new generation of women comedians who, since 2000, have grabbed headlines, turned heads, and in some cases made history with their political comedy about gender, sexuality, race, and class. The performances listed below are not in any order because all of them are amazing, but the Fey-Poehler performance is listed first because it’s the one that’s gotten the most mainstream attention.

1—The Saturday Night Live Tina Fey/Amy Poehler skit on Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton (2008)

At the height of the 2008 presidential campaign, Fey and Poehler impersonate Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton “crossing party lines to address the now very ugly role that sexism is playing in the campaign,” as Fey’s Palin piously puts it. This skit wittily contends that no matter what women look like, their looks will always be more important than what they say, as far as mainstream media is concerned. For the topic of international politics, Fey/Palin’s contribution is that she can see Russia from her house, while Poehler/Clinton, a brilliant politician, complains about journalists sniping that she has “cankles.” The skit was part of a series of Fey’s Palin impersonations on SNL which, some pollsters suggested, influenced the 2008 presidential election.

2—Wanda Sykes’s routine on Michelle Obama in her performance concert I’ma Be Me (2009)

Sykes begins this routine with her childhood memory of her mother’s rebuke that Wanda and her sister shouldn’t “dance” in the car because “White people are looking at you!” She develops this into a scathing and hilarious commentary on the white policing of black bodies, especially black female bodies. When she uses the new First Lady as her extended example, the comedy is a coup of fierce race/gender critique. High points include Sykes lampooning the stereotype of “the angry black woman” and shrewdly pinpointing the racism underlying journalists’ probing question, “Who is the real Michelle Obama?” 

3—Margaret Cho’s All American Girl segment of I’m the One That I Want (2000)

In this segment of her first performance concert, Cho tells from a feminist perspective the story of her failed 1990s sitcom All American Girl. During her experience with ABC network executives, she was told her face was “too big for the camera”—that is, too Asian—and that she needed to lose 30 pounds in two weeks in order to look acceptable for primetime. In this virtuoso comeback, Cho castigates the racism and sexism of the entertainment industry and also tells how the ideal of the thin white body nearly killed her. Her exuberant manifesto at the end of this concert is a high point in feminist pop culture.

4—Ellen DeGeneres hosts the Emmy Primetime Awards (2001)

In the months after 9/11, the Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony had been canceled twice and was finally re-scheduled in November, with DeGeneres as its host. She won overwhelming acclaim for a performance that hit exactly the right notes, respecting the ongoing national trauma and gracefully pointing to the future. This role was also the turnaround for DeGeneres’s career, which had faltered badly following her groundbreaking coming-out in 1997. Her television series Ellen (1994-98) had been picketed by protesters, slapped with censorship warnings, and eventually cancelled. But at the Emmys just four years later, she stepped into the role of affable host that turned out to be her niche, eventually launching her to international fame with her daytime talk show. At the 2001 Emmys, she cites her butch lesbianism as the key to the award ceremony’s political meaning: “What would bug the Taliban more than seeing a gay woman in a suit surrounded by Jews?” The line cleverly recruits the visibility of Jewishness, Hollywood liberalism, and homosexuality as signs of patriotism and calls attention to her gay identity as her claim to citizenship.

5—“Rosemary’s Baby” episode of 30 Rock (2007)

This season two episode of 30 Rock honors and celebrates the history of women comics and comedy writers on television, beginning with a clever nod to Laugh In (1967-73), which had featured an unusual number of women comics for its time. Carrie Fisher guest stars as Rosemary, a groundbreaking feminist comedy writer from the 1960s, idolized for decades by network writer Liz Lemon (Tina Fey). “Rosemary says women become obsolete in this business when there’s no one left that wants to see them naked,” Liz tells her boss Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin). Rosemary’s radical feminism is pitted against Liz’s success-oriented postfeminism, and even though Rosemary turns out to have some serious problems, the twist at the end shows Liz quietly honoring her predecessor in a tangible way.

6The Women’s Studies subplot on Parks & Recreation (2011-2012)

Only a television series as cheerfully feminist as Parks & Recreation (2009-) could feature a story line where a Women’s Studies course is a topic rather than a punchline. In Season Four’s “Smallest Park “ (2011) April (Aubrey Plaza) and Ron (Nick Offerman) help Andy (Chris Pratt) decide on a community college course, so all three of them sit in on Introduction to Women’s Studies. The class and the professor enthrall them. “If that woman weren’t so violently opposed to marriage, I’d propose to her,” the ultra-conservative Ron muses. In a follow-up episode, “Lucky” (2012), Andy passes the course and invites the professor out with his friends to celebrate. Chris (Rob Lowe) carefully admits he was admiring her finely muscled arms but didn’t want to objectify her “with the male gaze.” Watch clips from this episode:

7The “Norma Gay” episode of Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D List (2009)

In this season five episode, Melissa Etheridge knights Griffin as “Norma Gay” when Griffin sets out to campaign against Proposition 8, California’s 2008 ruling against gay marriage. Griffin’s overall shtick about the D List is that it’s more fun and interesting than the glamour and obligatory heterosexuality of the A List, so there’s an edgy sex/gender politics to the whole series. Look for Griffin’s passionate take on the Matthew Shepherd case and for her tipsy mother’s appearance in a wheelchair at a rally, holding a sign that says “Gay marriage—I’ll drink to that.”

8Mo’Nique’s I Coulda Been Your Cellmate performance concert at the Ohio Reformatory for Women (2006)

In this live performance in a women’s prison yard, Mo’Nique performs raunchy material on everything from obstetrics to confronting your man who might be on the down low. But the high points are the shots of the women, many of them serving life sentences, who are thrilled that a famous comedian would not only show up, but connect with them and talk about their lives. Watching their faces is a good antidote to any single episode of Orange is the New Black. Mo’Nique concludes by telling them, “Dream as big as you can. They told me I was too fat and too black. And they told me I would never be a sex symbol.” She pauses and then beams. “Right now,” she says, “I’m a big, black, mother-fucking sex symbol.”

9The bridal shower scene of Bridesmaids (2011)

Kristen Wiig as screenwriter is at her best here in this send-up of wedding culture, which pushes women into more and more extravagant showers, receptions, and gifts (puppies as party favors!) Wiig as Annie goes on a rampage in a deeply satisfying way—punching out the giant cookie and fouling the Parisian chocolate fountain. Notice the adolescent girl at the shower who’s particularly delighted by all this, and also the reactions of the Melissa McCarthy character, who totally gets it. There’s a lot of class rage here as well as passion about Annie’s feelings for Lillian; Annie’s remark about lesbianism suggests how women’s attachments to other women are part of a spectrum. The bridesmaid who immediately denies this is especially funny because we saw her earlier in a drunken make-out session with another bridesmaid on a plane.

10Tig Notaro’s monologue on breast cancer (2012)

In August, 2012, stand-up comedian Tig Notaro was diagnosed with Stage Two breast cancer and was told she was facing a double mastectomy and chemo. Scheduled to do a half-hour set at Largo in Los Angeles a few days later, Notaro threw out her prepared material and instead improvised some darkly funny reflections on the diagnosis and her own mortality. Louis C. K. was there, tweeted that it was one of the best sets he’d ever heard, and put the audio recording on his website, turning it into a pop culture event. It’s a courageous performance that stunningly embraces the grim comic unruliness of the body. And given that mainstream entertainment is still mostly about perfect, gorgeous female bodies, it’s a reminder of why women’s comedy is important.

Linda Mizejewski is Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the Ohio State University in Columbus. She is the author of Divine Decadence: Fascism, Female Spectacle, and the Makings of Sally Bowles, Ziegfeld Girl: Image and Icon in Culture and Cinema, and Hardboiled & High Heeled: The Woman Detective in Popular Culture. Her most recent book, It Happened One Night, is a study of the original romantic comedy film.